What To Do If Someone Is Caught In An Avalanche

This has been written as if the rescuer is above the victim looking down, it is just as likely to be the other way around in which case the steps are the same but much harder because all the movement is uphill

Stay calm, think before you act!!

Remember where you last saw the victim and guess the speed of the slide
Wait until the slide has stopped. Assess the risk of a secondary slide which could catch the rescuers.
If you have the manpower post a look out to warn the others of another slide or send someone for help if near a ski area or hopefully both, If you are alone then begin the search.
Go straight to the last place you saw the victim and physically mark this with a ski or something. Now guess how far you think he has gone since you last saw him. Scan the area really carefully for any sign of him, an arm or maybe just a hand. This could save you the trouble of a electronic search.

Get the whole party to switch their transceivers onto RECEIVE. Also check everyone’s transceiver is at maximum sensitivity. If you pick up a really strong signal straight away suspect that someone is still in transmit mode. If you are in a group then someone must take charge, preferably the most experienced. The group must spread out across the width of the avalanche but be no more than 30m apart. If this is not possible then the avalanche must be searched in sections or using the solo method or a combination of the two. This is where practice and training come in. Assuming the group can cover the area, the searchers advance forward keeping in line and careful not to omit any areas until someone picks up a clear signal. Once you have a signal your elected best searcher should move until he has the signal. Now only he continues with the search using the flux line method. Other members ready themselves with probes and shovels.

If you are the only searcher, you must start at one side of the avalanche and walk across it staying at the same height, once you reach the other side you descend 30m and then walk back across the avalanche. This process is repeated until a signal is picked up. This grid search ensures that you are never more than 15m away from any point on the surface of the avalanche. Most manufacturers claim that their transceiver’s work up to 60m apart, in practice battery power, the cold and interference reduce this considerably. It is better to take a little more time to find the signal than to reach the bottom of the avalanche debris and have found nothing. In this case you must work your way back up the avalanche and try again. If your victim is shielded by Ground features or rocks you may be quite close to him before a signal is picked up .

The searcher now orientates himself until the strongest signal is picked up. Always hold the transceiver against your chest and keep it still then move your body rather then the transceiver. If there is no difference in signal strength with orientation then move forward in the same direction as before until a better signal is received. Once you can pick up a best direction from the signal move that way for 10 metres or until the signal becomes weaker. If you immediately lose your signal there is a chance you are moving in the opposite direction to the victim, return to the original spot and do a 360 degree sweep and try the opposite direction. You will be familiar with this if you have practiced with your transceiver. As you move forward the signal should become stronger, after 10m or if the signal becomes weaker stop and reorientate yourself . Again find the best direction (strongest signal) and follow it for 10m or until the signal weakens. This process will lead you on a curved path to the victim, as you get closer you will need to turn down the sensitivity of you transceiver to get the best information. Some transceivers have lights to show you where the best signal is and when to turn down the sensitivity and some new digital models tell you when to reorientate and turn the transceiver down automatically. (See analogue vs. digital page). When you have a strong signal on minimum sensitivity then you are just about above your victim. It may be that because of interference, battery power or just depth you never reach the minimum setting on your transceiver. It is important to remember that if the signal gets weaker in every direction then you are above the victim

Now you can do the ground search. Take the transceiver from around your neck and hold it just above the snow. Always keep the transceiver pointing in the same direction and level. Move it slowly from left to right and identify where the signal is strongest. Move the transceiver there and then move it slowly forwards and backwards. Then repeat the left and right sweep, you will identify a place, maybe with a couple more sweeps where the lines cross at the strongest signal .

If you have a probe it should be used here to identify the position and depth of the victim. If you don’t hit him at first go, probe the immediate area around. Once you have located the body leave the probe in place. Estimate the depth of the victim using your probe. Move 1.5 times the depth downhill of the victim and dig a terrace inwards rather than downhill. For more information, please read the article ABC (and D) of Avalanche Shovelling

When you reach the body clear the head straight away and make sure the airway is clear and that he is breathing. Knowledge of first aid can make all the difference now. First Aid, like avalanche safety is something that should have been learnt and practiced beforehand. Your friend will probably be injured by ice/rocks, will definitely be in shock and only moments away from hypothermia. This is when he needs you most!

Extract the rest of him with a bit more care in case he has broken bones and make your evacuation plan. If near a ski area help will not be far away, if not protecting him from the elements is your first priority.

What to do if you are caught in an avalanche
You might be able to do absolutely nothing in which case enjoy the ride, it may be your last
Try to shed your poles and backpack, these will pull you down,
Try to get your feet in front of you, if you know where the front is !!

Save your energy until you feel the slide slowing down and then make a massive push towards the surface or to clear an area around your head. Keep your mouth closed and empty of snow.

Once the slide has stopped, work out if any part of you is clear of the surface, if so begin to move it as much as possible without panicking, you are trying to draw attention that’s all. If not, try to calm down and wait to be rescued or to die. This will have already been decided by you and your friends. If you were moving responsibly (see hints for avoiding an avalanche) and have practiced using your transceiver with your friends, then they will have a good idea where you are and will already be homing in on you. If you were not being a responsible back country skier/boarder then you have chosen to be in this situation and only luck will save you.