What Do You Do When it Turns to Custard?
By Anna Keeling.
Recently I listened to a podcast released by Utah Avalanche forecaster and good friend, Drew Hardesty. He talked very honestly about the day, (in 2019), when he blew the forecast. It was January 5 2019 and he talked most candidly about so-called “wish casting” - how he wanted the hazard to be low based on it being low the day before, and also because the hazard had been elevated for weeks prior. My understanding is that a risk for forecasters is “message-fatigue” - the idea that people become inured to a repeated message over time.
Interesting discussion as it may be, my aim is not to discuss whether Drew was right or wrong. Forecasting isn’t easy. There are so many variables at work in the mountain environment that bringing it into a framework is superbly tricky, especially when you are forecasting for thousands of people (as Drew was). On this day, there were 8 human triggered avalanches in Utah’s Wasatch mountains. One resulted in a trip to the emergency room. You can listen to various stories here: utahavalanchecenter.org/blog/46890
It was the story of the trip to the emergency room that caught my ear and got me thinking: I wonder who out there is carrying emergency equipment for a worst-case scenario (someone seriously injured) and what they are carrying? When I teach avalanche classes, I show the contents of my pack and this information is documented in my safety management plan (which falls under the jurisdiction of the Adventure Activities Legislation in NZ). Have I had to use it much? No, but I have had to use it. Twice in my career I’ve had to get out my pocket
mask for CPR. I’ve had to splint the odd limb (including my own), relocate the odd shoulder and I’ve patched a million blisters.
In this story from January 5, a man and woman are on a big day ski tour in Utah. They are about 1000m above and about 7km in, from their car. They trigger an avalanche while ascending and are both caught. The man isn’t buried but the woman is. He rescues her. She’s stripped down to mid layers (as they are ascending) and by the time he finds her, she is unconscious, then conscious and confused, and then hypothermic. They manage to self-rescue but she is in rough shape due to being buried for 15-20 minutes and being hypoxic and hypothermic. These two were well-prepared. As the partner searched, he ran through CPR
drills and worst-case scenarios in his mind. They had extra jackets and food and ran into friends who also carried extra equipment. They didn’t have an EPIRB or PLB and they did not have cell service. Self rescue was the best option.
On the basis of this story, it feels pertinent: What should we carry as a minimum? What should we know at a minimum?
I’ve said it before: If you choose to enter avalanche terrain (even from the side country of a ski area), you are going into tiger country. I advise learning CPR, it doesn’t take long and isn’t hard. A basic first aid course takes two days and will usually include CPR training.
On the days when I am not guiding I take these things in addition to my avalanche safety tools:
- Small foam mat (50cmx50cm) for getting people off the snow or for splinting a limb.
- PLB or InReach satellite texter or SPOT tracker (that’s what Jo Morgan had when she was caught in an avalanche in 2018).
- Survival blanket or lightweight bivouac sack. I prefer the bivvy sack as I can turn it into a drag bag/sled if necessary.
- Spare down or puffy jacket.
- Neck gaiter
- Spare gloves
- First Aid kit (including a pocket mask for CPR)
- A lighter
- 2-3 Rubber straps (you can fix a lot of things with these). I keep them on my poles.
- Extra food that I am unlikely to eat on regular days - GU, cliff bars and other yucky-ish stuff.
- Map and compass.
- Hand and/or body warmers x 2-3.
None of this weighs much but they will assure a certain level of comfort if things go wrong. On bigger days I’ll take a thermos or a tiny lightweight stove for melting snow for water. I insist that everyone has an extra puffy warm layer and two pairs of gloves as well as two sets of eye wear (goggles and sunglasses). I won’t give away my spare clothes because I can’t think clearly once I am cold.
On January 5, the partner was quick to put clothes on the victim - all extra puffy jackets from the nearby friends went to her but she was still chilled to the bone and only just functioning (she was vomiting and stumbling but was able to move on her own). The description of the aftermath made me relieved that they had trained with their emergency gear and that they carried extra clothing and food.
It’s easy and preferable to go light. I argue that you still can, it only takes a little planning and awareness to carry the right things without weighing yourself down. It may save someones’life. It could be yours. Best you don’t skimp.
1. Ski Guides practice sled rescues in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains
2. Anna’s Dirty Posh crew - know what to take….
Anna Keeling is a regular feature writer for Chill. Chill partners with Anna Keeling Guiding to put on Snow Safety and Introduction Touring Courses throughout the winter season, as well as the Craigieburn Haute Route guided tours.