Planning, preparation, and communication can help you to avoid accidents in the mountains. Teamwork saves lives both proactively and in the event of an accident. But, remember that the only thing certain in the mountains is uncertainty. Embrace that and be self-reliant.
Recreating in avalanche terrain is an inherently dangerous activity…and avalanches are only one of a long list of hazards that the backcountry traveler will encounter in the Eastern Sierra. Whether you travel on skis, a snowmobile, snowboard, snowshoes, or are climbing the high peaks in a snow-covered environment, risk, or the effect of uncertainty on your objectives, can turn a great day in the mountains into a logistical challenge or a life-threatening emergency. Broken equipment, athletic injuries, broken bones, or one of your partners buried or injured in an avalanche all present unique challenges that even experienced mountain people can struggle to overcome.
The effects of injuries and tragedies have lasting impacts on our physical and mental well-being, and the experience resonates throughout our mountain communities and beyond.
Careful planning can help to mitigate making rash decisions in the mountains and ensure that you are carrying what you need in the event of an emergency. An agreed upon trip plan with notes on route, terrain and snowpack considerations can ease decision making for groups as well by making the process democratic from the start. If you agree to travel together, you should agree to make decisions together. Utilize ESAC as a piece of your planning process with backcountry partners prior to arriving at the trailhead. An avalanche forecast can help to inform route choices and timing for traveling in avalanche terrain on a specific day, but does not cover the complexity of traveling in the mountains completely.
- Read and understand the avalanche forecast.
- Carry avalanche rescue gear and insist that all members of your team do so.
- Do a departure check of your transceiver at the trailhead.
- Choose routes and objectives suitable to the conditions and your group’s skill level.
- Discuss options and have alternatives at the ready.
- Know where you are going, where you are, and where to get help as needed.
Continue (or begin) your avalanche education with a reputable local course provider and seek out experienced mentors. ESAC also hosts several FREE continuing education events throughout the season which are a great way to stay connected and continue your education. An archive of previous events can be found HERE.
- Prepare for the worst by taking an avalanche rescue course and practicing those skills frequently with the partners whom you travel with. See the video below from AIARE for a recommendation on how to practice avalanche rescue with your partners.
- Prepare for medical emergencies by maintaining a wilderness first aid certification and carrying a first aid kit suitable for the duration of your trip, specific medical needs and the activity which you are participating in.
- Be prepared to spend the night out if extrication or assistance is not timely. Carry extra clothing and food, and consider an emergency shelter to accommodate one or more people.
Effective communication occurs on many different levels and can prevent backcountry accidents in some cases. At worst it can mitigate the long term effects of an accident.
- Communicate clearly and frequently with your partners about your expectations and observations.
- Speak up if conditions are changing or you are uncomfortable with decisions.
- Leave your trip plan with trusted friends or family in case you are overdue in the mountains and they can share your plans with organized search and rescue groups as needed.
- Bring tools to communicate in case of an emergency and don’t plan for cell service in most areas of the Eastern Sierra. Satellite communication devices such as the Garmin InReach or Spot devices can be valuable tools for communicating in remote areas without cell service.
When unexpected events occur in the mountains, work as a team to solve the problems you are presented with. Assign someone to assume a leadership role in your group and utilize the strengths of your team members whether that be rescue, first-aid, or otherwise. Remain calm and prioritize the group’s safety. Be cognizant of not creating any more victims following an initial accident.
- Group debriefs and intentional reflection are powerful tools for carrying lessons learned forward. Highlight you and your group’s strengths, but don’t forget to identify areas for improvement so as to live to ride another day.
The next video is an excellent reflective piece on the impact that even a near-miss avalanche incident can have. This incident occurred in the spring of 2020 in the Piute Crags outside of Bishop, within the ESAC forecast zone, after we ceased operations during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown in California.
You need to be prepared to perform your own companion rescue in the case of a burial in an avalanche. About 3/4 of avalanche fatalities are due to asphyxiation and evidence suggests that the chance of surviving a complete burial decreases dramatically after as little as 10 minutes!
- If you have the resources, consider leaving one team member outside of the avalanche path to call for outside help. Work as a team and fall back on your training to effect the rescue safely and quickly.
- Once the victim is on the snow surface your job is not done. Avalanche burial victims are often injured, missing equipment or have broken equipment and are therefore unable to travel out of the backcountry on their own.
- Avalanche involvements can be violent experiences which can result in traumatic injuries even if the victim is not buried. Most other avalanche fatalities are the result of these injuries. Stabilize the patient and treat what you can in the field.
AVALANCHE RESCUE GEAR
We recommend that if you are traveling in avalanche terrain that you always carry an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe. These tools when used together are the most effective means to extricate a buried victim of an avalanche. Organized search and rescue teams can not respond quickly enough to likely save lives in the event of burial in an avalanche.
Modern avalanche transceivers are reliable and intuitive, but take practice to become proficient at getting close to the buried victim, especially in more complicated scenarios. Check with the manufacturer for expected lifespans of transceivers and keep the firmware updated through the manufacturer or authorized retailer.
The simpler avalanche rescue tools, a probe, and a shovel are important as well and should not be left behind. When purchasing a new shovel find a model that has a telescoping handle and a metal blade. Avalanche probes should be at least 250cm in length when assembled. Longer is sometimes better, especially considering the potential for burial in a terrain trap. Check the functionality of these tools periodically throughout the season, especially if you practice often as the parts may become worn.
SEARCH AND RESCUE IN THE EASTERN SIERRA
Both Inyo County Search and Rescue and Mono County Sheriff Search and Rescue are skilled volunteer groups that can assist in case of backcountry emergencies. These trained teams manage great risks to assist those in need. Utilize search and rescue for emergencies where you have exhausted your resources or need extra help to extricate an injured person.
Their websites provide information about their services and recommendations for calling for help. Please support these organizations and only utilize their services for true emergencies which have exhausted your skills and resources.
When contacting SAR via 911 Inyo County SAR recommends the following:
If someone is injured or ill and needs help, send for help with a complete and clear report. This report should include:
- exact location
- what happened
- description of the injury or illness
- approximate age and weight of the individual
- any important medical history (diabetic, allergies, heart condition)
- level of consciousness
- ability to walk
- any other important notes about the person or situation that may help a SAR team to access, treat, and evacuate the victim.
The most important aspect of self-rescue is to prevent the need for a rescue. Prepare, plan, communicate and travel safely to set yourself up for success. Be mindful of your skillset and what risks you are assuming in the mountains. Accidents do happen and it is important to be as self-reliant as possible by being prepared to shelter in place to await assistance or if possible, begin evacuating with the resources and skills you have. Support from an organized rescue group can be hours or days delayed depending on the conditions and other circumstances.
To read more about how a local backcountry rescue unfolded, check out the 2021 Punta Bardini Avalanche Accident Report.