Avalanche Transceiver Technology & Multiple Burials

Today's digital avalanche transceivers offer extra features to help the user and speed up the search. Some of these features, like approximate distance and general direction have been almost universally adopted as reliable and helpful, other features such as signal masking, scanning and vital signs are less universally accepted. The main point of these special features is that they allow you to locate a buried victim, mark their position and then leave others to dig them up while you search for the next victim. For this to be a possibility you need at least 1 searcher for each victim, because 2 people cannot locate and dig up 3 people at the same time, no matter what special features they have.

After a recent sales meeting with Backcounty Access (maker of the tracker DTS), I thought I would share some of their facts with you. Obviously this data, makes their transceiver look like the best choice, that could be careful use of statistics, or because their transceiver actually is the best choice. Try to apply the information to your off piste habits and decide for yourself.

In the Austrian Tyrol between 1997 and 2003 there were 432 recorded avalanches. 188 of these avalanche incidents involved people actually being transported. That's 30 avalanches a year that involve people, not in Europe but just in the Tyrol.

Of 188 people related avalanches, 120 of them did not require a beacon search as the victims were only partially buried (some part of them was visible above the snow and the rescuers could move directly to them) or skied away.

Of the remaining 68 incidents only 34 involved transceiver rescue. Sadly only 50% of the incidents involved both rescuers and victims with beacons. Although this article is about transceiver features, this statistic is actually the most frightening and the area that needs the greatest attention. 34 of those 68 avalanches involved people without transceivers who relied on slow and manpower heavy search techniques. Even though transceiver use amongst skiers and boarders is not high enough it is significantly better than amongst mountaineers.

So only 34 out of 188 incidents where transceiver rescue is needed and possible.
Of those 34 incidents, only 8 involved the complete burial of more than one person

Personally I think it is pretty telling that only 8 out of 188 avalanche incidents could have benefited from special search features. That's only just over 4%, so when deciding which transceiver you want to buy only spend 4% of your time worrying about these features.

However BCA attempted to contact the people involved in these 8 incidents to further clarify what happened. In several cases either the victims were too far apart to benefit from special feature searches, and multiple seperate single searches took place, or there were not enough rescuers to make using the special features a possibility. This left just 2 incidents out of 188. In one case nobody from the accident could be contacted so no data was available and in the other it was confirmed that special search features could have been used.

The case where special search features could have been used is the well known avalanche in Galtour. 14 people were avalanched towards the end of the day whilst skiing home on a track. There were 14 conflicting signals within a tiny space. In short an absolute nightmare. The rescurers located and dug up 7 peole that day by using search microstrips. Armed with the now discontined Ortovox M2, the searcher turned the transceiver to minimum sensitivity and then walked in tiny strips along the debris. His transceiver would only locate a signal with 3m of him, but since he wasn't short of signals it was a very effective search technique. Once he found a signal, probing was used to pinpoint the victim. This point of this story is not that special features were not used but if you keep your head and know your transceiver then even very difficult multiple rescues are possible.

So it is BCA's philosophy that ease of use of the transceiver is of paramount importance and everything else really isn't worth worrying about. They are so convinced of this that although the new Tracker 2 will have a special search mode like the current Tracker, it has been de-emphasized on the body of the transceiver so unless you know it's there and how to use you, you would not think to use it.

A far more telling statistic about avalanche rescue is that of the incidents where somebody was either partially or completely buried 100% of them involved shovelling! The most commonly reported thing about avalanche rescue is the length of time it takes to extract the located victim and how phyisically hard it is. For more information see Effective Shovelling in Avalanche Rescue