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Essential tools for venturing into avalanche country

Posted: December 9, 2011 - 1:01am
  Courtesy of Ron Simenhois
Courtesy of Ron Simenhois

Winter can never come too early for me. By mid-August I was restlessly looking for the first colors of fall. Long before snow fell, I had already looked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seasonal forecast, lined up a workshop or two and refreshed my memory with a few avalanche books and articles.

As I prepare for the season, I always make sure I have and remember how to use the basic gear I take into the backcountry.

I am not a gear-head by any standard. But when it comes to rescue gear, I go against my nature and geek out over the type of aluminum of my shovel, the power consumption and number of antennas of my avalanche beacon and the assembly mechanisms of my avalanche probe.

In addition to avalanche rescue gear, a backcountry skier should also carry extra clothing, food, water and first aid. In this column, we’ll go into a little detail about the three avalanche rescue essentials. They are:

• Beacon: There are many good beacons on the market. In general, buying a relatively newer model with three antennas is a good call. Test your beacon for range at the beginning of the season.

• Shovel: I recommend sticking to an aluminum shovel (specifically a 6061 alloy with T6 heat treatment) with a telescopic shaft for effective digging.

• Probe: Make sure the probe you select is durable by ensuring it is made of strong material and that it is easy to assemble with gloves. Tent poles are not good option.

Buyers beware: As with any rescue gear, it is always better to avoid buying used gear.

For obvious reasons it is important to have the essential rescue gear. But knowing how to use it is just as important as having it.

Think about it this way, you decided to buy a race car and now you have it parked in your garage. Unfortunately, having the car doesn’t mean you are a NASCAR driver. You may impress the heck out of your cousin from Alabama and folks in the bar may tell each other that you are a fast driver, but by itself, a race car parked in your garage would not make you a better driver. The same goes for your rescue gear. Owning the right gear is not enough; you need to practice to be able to use it effectively.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to practice rescue skills in the Juneau area. Early in the season, Eaglecrest Ski Area ski patrol and the Juneau Mountain Rescue group put together a rescue scenario where users can learn and practice the latest and greatest in shoveling and probing techniques. Eaglecrest and JMR also operate one of the nicest beacon training parks in the country. It is free and easy to use.

Beacon training can also begin well before snow hits the ground. Just spread a few hats in your driveway and ask a friend to hide a transmitting beacon under one of the hats.

Equipment companies have long been producing avalanche emergency gear, like the Avalung, that allows a buried person to breathe under the snow. Other products act as an air bag to help a person ride an avalanche to the surface. Helmets specifically designed to protect the user’s head, a vital organ, to improve the chances of survival in avalanche scenarios. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to carry the Avalung, air bag and helmet on tour.

However, sometimes the risk of using protective gear can outweigh the benefits. I have seen folks happily settling into a false sense of security when wearing an Avalung or an airbag. They take bigger risks and, hence, might get caught in an avalanche.

Sometimes it is better to adventure with a basic beacon, shovel and probe and use travel rituals to help navigate out of avalanche debris. For example, when in a group I travel one person at a time in avalanche terrain, I keep my body hydrated and avoid a low glucose level and I listen to my gut feeling only when it tells me I shouldn’t ski a slope.

The state of your rescue gear and the ability to use it reflects your attitude toward others. Go and play in the mountains, but be willing and be in a position to help others -- just as you would like them to help you -- when things go wrong. To do so, you need to have the proper gear and be trained to use it effectively under the worst conditions.

• Ron Simenhois is an avalanche forecaster with his family in North Douglas. You can contact him at ron.simenhois@gmail.com.

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