Four minutes, 25 seconds.
That’s how long it took me to find the avalanche victim.
As I walked, my avalanche transceiver’s signal got stronger, stronger, than weaker. Mark.
Turn around and go back: Stronger, stronger, weaker, mark.
Then I went back to the middle, turned 90 degrees and did the same thing the other way. I found the center, started poking with a probe, hit something, grabbed my shovel and started digging.
Eureka, the “victim:” Another avalanche transceiver in a plastic bag.
“That was quick,” John Cleary said, a mountain climber and skier, a geologist by day, that guides for the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC).
It was part of an exercise in avalanche rescue with transceivers in a one-day backcountry skills workshop that NASTC offers, among several different workshops. As a part of this workshop, there are two more one day workshops to come- the second dealing with ice axe and crampon use and the third dealing with rope work and rescue.
Cleary went down a slope, behind a big rock and around some trees and buried it somewhere. When he came back I was to find it, just like the people before me.
During the day, he broke down the importance of transceivers and being able to use them properly. Once we were done, we felt comfortable enough and then operated smoothly to find the transceivers.
But if it were real?
For Cleary, a Level II AMGA Rock Guide that’s climbed in Alaska, Colorado, California, New England, Wyoming, the Swiss Alps, and the Himalayas and has been guiding professionally since 1985, avalanche awareness is always on the mind when he’s out.
“It’s all part of guiding,” he said. “The lives of your guests are at risk.
“There’s a whole spectrum of danger.”
A slide is the greatest of that backcountry danger. With all of the preparedness and safety practices, when the conditions are bad, it comes down to one thing: Go out or stay home?
“Safety is the number one thing, but you want everyone to have a good time,” Cleary said.
Later, we dug a snowpit and examined the layers and tested for stability: Cement. We walked away that day with a wealth of knowledge that should be the determining factors of whether we should be in the backcountry or not. The three one-day workshops culminate in a trip from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley along the Pacific Crest trail.
More and more skiers and snowboarders find themselves going into the backcountry. People tire of lift lines, tracked up powder, groomers and attitudes. So they kick into gear and huff it in the backcountry.
“It’s fun,” Cleary said. “People like not being in a big crowd.”
There is no ski patrol or no blasting of dangerous cornices, only you and whoever else decides to head out that day.
“The more people in the backcountry, the more chance someone will get buried,” Cleary said.
That means avalanches are claiming more and more lives and skiers and snowboarders should be prepared.
Prepared for what?
To rescue your friend’s bacon if he or she is buried in an avalanche quick enough to save him or her. To avoid the backcountry during days of high avalanche danger, or areas that pose a high risk.
“It’s suttle,” Cleary said. “Conditions can get bad, they can change in 10 minutes.”
Without much snow, the avalanche danger is extremely low, but even so, there was a slide along old Highway 40 near the “Peanut Gallery,” a cliff known for climbing in the summer.
The Forest Service is one of those agencies at the forefront of that
“It tore all the way to the ground,” Bob Moore, snow ranger for the Tahoe National Forest said.
The snow spilt out onto the road but has been cleaned up since.
A Truckee woman died in a Canadian avalanche two weeks ago in the Selkirk range along with six other expert skiers and snowboarders. Kathy Polucha Kessler was an expert skier and her fellow skiers and riders were also experts.
A Reno snowboarder died in an avalanche while going out of bounds in the Chutes at Mt. Rose Dec. 15.
The danger is always there, always will be.
Tahoe National Forest Service has an avalanche advisory program that has been around for 25 years.
“When the conditions warrant we put out advisories that deal with the backcountry,” Moore said. “We only put out advisories when it’s considerable, high or extreme.”
There are five danger levels: Low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme.
The Forest Service is often responsible for finding the missing people in such cases. Be kind to them.
“We’d like people to be reasonably prepared,” Moore said. “Generally in this area we have thousands of people going into the backcountry and very few incidents.
“It makes everybody’s jobs a little easier.”
Moore offered these pointers: Choose safe travel routes, such as ridge tops or valley bottoms. Check the weather and avalanche conditions before you go. Stay off cornices and know what you’re doing.
If you don’t know what you’re getting into, an avalanche safety course from a company such as NASTC is a wise investment.
“I would really encourage them to take at least take a one-day avalanche course and get proficient using a beacon, because that may save the life of your friend,” Cleary said. “With all the best guides in the world, you can still get in trouble.”
For someone that’s climbed and skied all over the world, Cleary has never seen an avalanche in person.
“I’m one of those charmed people I guess,” he said. “I shouldn’t complain.”
Tahoe National Forest coda phone for updated local snow and avalanche conditions
http://www.avalanche.org, click on Truckee for report
North American Ski Training Center
Chris and Jenny Fellows, directors