Think avalanches happen only in high-altitude places like the Alps, Mount Everest, or the Rockies? Think again. Here in the East, avalanche warnings are not uncommon in the White Mountains and the Adirondacks, so it pays to do your homework. We asked Dave Lottmann, a guide at Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School and certified AIARE Level II course leader, to give us the lowdown on what every winter adventurer needs to know before heading into the backcountry. Here's what he had to say.
In every avalanche course I teach, someone always asks, "What's the best beacon?" The answer is simple: It's the one you practice with the most! Cliché aside, it's the truth. Older analog beacons in the hands of seasoned professionals can locate a buried victim just as fast as the newest digitals. Regardless, improvements in a digital receiver's range have made analog beacons mostly a thing of the past, so we'll take a look at a few digital devices we carry and who their appropriate users might be.
PIEPS DSP 5.0 AVALANCHE BEACON One of the newest beacons on the market, the Pieps DSP uses a digital signal processor, the highlighted technology in this unit. Generally speaking, the receiver is able to simultaneously detect and synchronize multiple signals to help reduce the confusion that can be caused by close burials. The added technology does complicate the operation some, so I would tend to recommend this unit to seasoned backcountry skiers and patrollers, or those going on ski tours in large remote ranges where multiple burials may be more likely.
MAMMUT PULSE BARRYVOX AVALANCHE BEACON The Mammut Pulse is another innovative beacon that performs well during multiple burial searches. The triple-antenna configuration allows you to ignore a signal while focusing on locating one person at a time. Once a victim is located, you can mark them "found" and continue the search for other victims. If the buried victim is also using a Pulse, you will be able to see if they have any vital signs or movement, which can help with running triage (who we dig for first). With the current 3.0 firmware update, the Pulse has both a basic and advanced user interface, making this an excellent choice for neophyte backcountry travelers as well as seasoned vets.
BACKCOUNTRY ACCESS TRACKER2 BEACON Arguably the easiest-to-use beacon on the market, the new BCA Tracker2 adds the accuracy of a triple-antenna configuration to the very intuitive interface, which makes this the beacon of choice for all EMS Climbing School avalanche courses. When the adrenaline is pumping and your ski partner is counting on you, it's reassuring to know your beacon keeps the search simple. This is an excellent choice for beginners and experts alike.
A beacon is just one part of a complete avalanche safety kit. The other two parts are a probe and shovel. A beacon can get you only so close to a victim, so digging without getting a probe strike can waste a lot of time and energy. Before you start tossing snow around, you NEED to get a probe strike.
We recommend a dedicated probe, aluminum or carbon fiber, 240 to 300 cm. We carry quality probes from Black Diamond, BCA, and Life-Link. Just like your beacon, efficient use of the pole requires practice with both deploying and probe technique. Always probe perpendicular to the snow, with both hands on the probe and in an organized pattern. Once you get a strike, leave the pole in place! It will give you valuable info on the depth of the burial, which can help with strategic shoveling.
Once you've pinpointed the victim, it's time to dig them out. Digging without a shovel is incredibly difficult, as the snow from an avalanche sets up like concrete within seconds of the avalanche coming to a stop. We recommend metal snow shovels for chopping through hard debris. The Black Diamond Deploy 3 is great for day touring and digs quite well for its collapsible size. For eight ounces more, I prefer the Black Diamond Transfer 7 for any overnight trips or extensive time in avalanche terrain. The telescoping handle greatly improves digging efficiency, and when disassembled, it can still fit into the shovel pocket of my pack.
Without a doubt, the most important tool you take with you into the mountains is your brain. Recognizing avalanche terrain and avoiding it when danger is high is one of the easier skills to learn. Implementing travel techniques to further increase your safety once you have deemed a slope safe to travel on takes a little more time and practice. Quickly responding to an avalanche and carrying out a rescue requires constant practice.
If you're planning on traveling in the backcountry in winter, start off on the right foot by taking an avalanche course. If you're a seasoned vet but haven't had any formal training in years, consider a refresher, since there've been a lot of refinements and changes to snow study and companion rescue over the past few years. Our EMS Climbing School is running an avalanche course almost every weekend in winter. These courses always fill up, as space is limited, so check them out here for more info: http://www.emsclimb.com/aiare1.html
Dave Lottmann grew up skiing in the White Mountains. When he was 16, he started climbing at a summer camp just north of Mt. Washington. He has completed a Level III AIARE avalanche course, and is a certified AIARE Level II course leader, Wilderness First Responder, and member of the "A" team on Mountain Rescue Service.