Staying Alive in Avalanche Country

Scouts in Northern Nevada learn the basics of avalanche safety while skiing some of Tahoe’s steepest slopes.

The specially trained German shepherd was pulling as hard as it could on Scout Justin Mascarich, an avalanche victim who lay buried under a mound of snow.

“Don’t let go,” the dog’s trainer yelled at Justin. “Hold on like your life depends on it.”


Smokey, a specially trained search and rescue dog, pulls Justin Mascarich out of the snow during Mount Rose Ski Resort’s avalanche simulation. Other participants are Scouts Mitch Comstock and Josh Dykstra, Troop 37 Scoutmaster Jim Schmidt, and Smokey’s trainer, Debra Freeman.

As Smokey the rescue dog slowly dragged Justin from his snowy enclosure, Mount Rose ski patrollers and fellow Troop 37 Scouts hurried to shovel away the excess snow covering him. Then they readied a rescue sled to carry Justin down the mountain.

An avalanche can occur without warning. Last winter, 24 people were killed by avalanches in the United States. Luckily, Justin Mascarich wasn’t one of them.

In fact, his burial in snow was simply a training exercise.

After being covered with the white stuff, Justin had been located and pulled to safety by Smokey within three minutes. (Had he been a victim of a real avalanche, he might have run out of air if the rescue operation had taken longer.)

This demonstration, sponsored by Mount Rose Ski Resort of North Lake Tahoe, gave the Scouts from Incline Village, Nev., a real-life understanding of the power and danger that avalanches pose.

In addition to enjoying a fun day of skiing and snowboarding at the resort, the Scouts learned how Mount Rose ski patrollers keep the mountain’s extreme skiing areas safe from avalanches, what equipment skiers should carry to survive a slide, how to use it, and methods to travel safely in steep backcountry terrain.

“I hope I never get caught in a real one,” said Justin, looking back at the four-foot-by-two-foot opening from which he had just been rescued. “It’s scary.”

Justin, who skis every winter with his family and friends in the resort community around Lake Tahoe, said he never really thought about surviving an avalanche until the training exercise.

“Now I want to learn how everything works so I don’t get into trouble,” he said.

LEARNING THE BASICS

One way to survive an avalanche is to never set foot into steep mountain terrain.

But that isn’t realistic, because the most exciting ski runs are often located on steep backcountry slopes where avalanches can occur. Skiers in these areas have to be extra careful and properly trained in winter travel and avalanche rescue techniques.

Thirty-eight percent of all avalanche deaths in the United States involve skiers and snowboarders. And for Troop 37, chartered to the Incline Village Optimist Club, awareness of avalanche danger is nothing new, because many Scouts are skiers and snowboarders, some racing on their high school team and skiing more than 50 days a season.

“This is our fourth year of avalanche training,” said Scoutmaster Jim Schmidt. “The patrol leaders’ council planned our winter camp-out activities to include avalanche safety training and then follow it up with the Mount Rose awareness clinic.


Austin Young and Josh Dykstra display a skier’s avalanche rescue beacon.

“Outdoor activities are an essential part of Scouting,” he added. “Because we live in the mountains, our troop has a year-round camping program, and avalanche safety is an important part of our training, so the Scouts can be prepared for winter camping and traveling in the mountains.”

The Scouts’ instructor in avalanche safety and rescue was Mike Ferrari, Mount Rose’s ski patrol director and head avalanche forecaster. He briefed them first on the resort’s responsibility code.

“Stay in control, look out for yourself and the people around you, and most importantly—always have fun,” he said.

But the most important thing about avalanches, Ferrari added, is to never overestimate your skiing ability or underestimate the danger.

NECESSARY EQUIPMENT

Because a person buried in an avalanche usually has between eight and 10 minutes to survive, it is critical to have guides, friends, and rescuers—with the proper training and equipment—nearby.

The equipment includes avalanche beacons, which send and receive an electronic signal to pinpoint a person’s location and which should be worn by all skiers; special probes (used to search for a buried victim); and lightweight, collapsible shovels.

Justin’s rescuers also had Smokey the rescue dog. The dog’s trainer is Debra Freeman, who, with Smokey, has worked with several different Tahoe basin rescue teams. She said Smokey’s nose could sense the panic scent emitted by a person buried under snow and, as a result, the dog can often locate a victim faster than a human using a beacon.

“I trust the dog,” she said. “If I let him guide me, he’ll find who’s buried.”

However, a rescue dog like Smokey is often part of special teams that need time to reach backcountry accidents. For that reason, Freeman also emphasized the importance of each person carrying, and knowing how to use, personal avalanche safety equipment.

That meant each Troop 37 Scout heading into the Tahoe backcountry carried an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. In addition, they packed extra food and liquid, such as energy bars and water, and other emergency supplies, such as matches, a black garbage bag (for use as a blanket, tent, or poncho), and a compass.

“Having the right stuff can save your life,” observed 13-year-old Mitch Comstock, whose father, Scott, also attended the training.

“It won’t be long before Mitch is traveling in the backcountry,” said his father. “Training sessions like today offer him a chance to prepare for what’s out there.”

TRIGGERING AVALANCHES

Most avalanches occur on snow-covered slopes angled between 30 and 45 degrees.


Mike Ferrari shows Scouts how an avalauncher fires explosives to cause controlled slides.

The area of Mount Rose known as the Chutes, where ski patrol director Ferrari guided Troop 37 during the training, has an average pitch of 40 degrees. It offers some of Tahoe’s most challenging and dangerous skiing terrain.

To lessen the danger to skiers, Mount Rose ski patrollers use a variety of control devices to trigger avalanches early in the morning before skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes.

Hand-thrown dynamite charges and an air-powered “avalauncher” (similar to an artillery gun) are their key tools.

“We’ll go through 60 hand charges on a given control day,” Ferrari said. “The first thing we do is check the weather…and if it’s bad [an avalanche is possible], everyone is on the hill by 6:30 a.m.”

Ferrari demonstrated how each hand charge needs three pieces to detonate.

“The blasting cap must be placed on the fuse; then the entire assembly is inserted into the explosive,” he explained. “Without all three pieces in place, the charge is very stable and can be carried in a backpack.”

He also showed the Scouts how, on a day when a heavy storm moves through and conditions are right, patrollers use the avalauncher to fire an explosive into steep terrain that cannot be accessed by patrollers with hand charges.

COMMON SENSE

Even though crews spend many hours each winter triggering avalanches to ensure skier safety, individual skiers should always use their common sense in anticipating and reacting to an avalanche, Ferrari said.

“Always be aware of what’s around you, what the snow is doing, and where it’s safe to be on the slope!” he shouted as he and the Scouts carefully skied into the narrow, rocky entrance to the Chutes.

“Look for islands of safety,” he added. “Trees, rocks, and saddles are places where you can ski to avoid being swept away by an avalanche.”

The Scouts gathered near a large pine tree, which had all its uphill-facing branches broken off.

“A big slide on this steep of slope could have gathered enough force and speed to snap the branches off,” Ferrari explained.

As the group continued down the hill, linking turns and focusing on a safe line to the bottom, Scoutmaster Schmidt pointed out how important it is to learn about avalanche safety.

“Some of these boys have never skied terrain like this, let alone tried to escape an avalanche,” he said. “But they understand now how serious it would be if they got caught in an avalanche here.”

Knowing about avalanches and being prepared to react to them means the Scouts will be able to ski more confidently and safely.

Cody Lant, 16, explained why he and other Troop 37 Scouts especially enjoy skiing steep terrain like the Chutes.

“It’s the fresh powder that does it for me,” he said. “Of course, you have to calculate the danger before dropping in. But when everything goes right, there is nothing like being the first person to leave tracks on a mountain.”

Justin Broglio is a writer on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. He spends winters skiing and raising awareness of avalanche safety and summers on the lake running a marina and teaching wakeboarding.


The Basics of Avalanche Education

Avalanches don’t happen by chance. They require an exact mix of weather, snow conditions, and terrain.

Combined under the right conditions, these three variables present avalanche danger. The terrain must be steep (typically 30 to 45 degrees), the snowpack must be unstable (often a light powder layer on top of an ice layer or a heavy ice layer on a weaker underlying layer), and the weather must present variable storm patterns—blowing wind and/or changing temperature cycles.

Not all avalanches are triggered by skiers and snowboarders. A majority of slides happen naturally and don’t affect anyone’s lives. However, if naturally occurring avalanches are happening in the area you are planning to ski, it is a sure sign to turn back and try again another day.

Before venturing into the backcountry, be sure to check online avalanche forecasts (at sites likewww.sierraavalanchecenter.org) or phone-message forecasts and always be aware of avalanche warning signs at ski resorts.

When traveling in avalanche-prone terrain, always use ridgelines and timbered slopes for your ascent. Most avalanches occur on open slopes. When it comes time to ski, go one at a time and stay in a safe zone until the other skier reaches the bottom. If you and your partner drop into a chute together and an avalanche occurs, there will be no one to save you. Go one at a time!

If you get caught in an avalanche, try to ride out of it. Ski straight down the slope and away from the moving slab as quickly as you can. Outrunning a slide is one option, but it doesn’t always work.

If you get caught and can’t get out, start swimming. Kick off your gear (skis), because they will pull you down. Try to get your body on top of the snow before it starts to bury you.

Most important, put up your hands in front of your face to create an air pocket if you are buried. As the avalanche comes to a stop, the snow will set up instantly like concrete, so you must move your hands in front and above your head before the snow stops moving.

—J.B.

 

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