How to Use an Avalanche Beacon

How to Use an Avalanche Beacon
Skiing or snowboarding in the backcountry is an awesome activity, but it is also one in which you must take calculated risks and responsibility for your actions. The threat of avalanches is greatest on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees, but the danger is not obsolete on other angles and a variety of terrain and conditions can set off one of these deadly waves of snow. Whether it's a loose snow slide or a slab avalanche that you happen to encounter, you should know how to use an avalanche beacon (and your friends should too) so you can do your best to quickly rescue anyone that has been buried.

Educate Yourself

Learn everything you can to prepare yourself for avalanche terrain. Read about avalanches and get first-hand instruction on how to evaluate the snow pack and handle emergencies. Take a class to become certified under the American Avalanche Association if possible (AmericanAvalancheAssociation.org). But if you do encounter an avalanche and not all the people in your party are accounted for, first sweep the terrain with your eyes to check for any sign of them and alert others of what has happened. If there is any piece of their gear, a hand, helmet, ski boot sticking out of the debris then you know where to go without having to waste time with your beacon.

Wear It Properly

Strap your avalanche beacon around your torso under your jacket. Before venturing off into the backcountry, check that every member of your party has a beacon that transmits and receives a signal and that all have good batteries. You should be familiar with the type of transceiver you have. The easiest beacons to use are the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS and the Ortovox M2.

Be Ready, Be Quick

Make sure other searchers turn their transceivers on to transmit while conducting the search or you will be running into their signals. The only transceiver that should be putting out a receive signal is that of the victims. Begin your search as fast as possible. All searchers should stay and search since the best chance a victim has of being rescued alive is within the first half hour. Don't waste time going for help elsewhere.

Coarse Search

Turn the volume all the way up on your beacon with searchers no farther than 50 feet apart from each other. Start above where the victim was last seen and work your way down the debris in a grid. Rotate your transceiver left to right, forward and back to find the strongest signal position. Then turn your volume down as low as you can while still hearing the signal so you can hear it change and hopefully increase in volume as you get closer to the buried victim.

Fine Search

Walk in a straight path over the general area of where you suspect the victim to be buried and when the signal rises and then fades, marks the spot where it has faded. Turn 180 degrees and walk to where the signal fades in the other direction. Mark this spot. Walk to the center point between the two faded signal markers, where the signal should be stronger. Turn 90 degrees (a right angle) and repeat this process, starting with low volume, marking out points where the signal fades. Retrace the paths you have marked with fading points, continuing the process of detecting where the points fade until you have a 6-b-6 foot area of where the signal beeps strongest.

Pinpoint Search

Hold your transceiver close to the snow to pinpoint to victim. Move the transceiver from side to side over the snow in small crisscross patterns with the volume again turned down so a distinguished signal is audible. Start using your probe to determine the victim's exact spot. Work quickly, but do not jab the probe down into the snow so that it would injure the person below. You do not know what position they are in. Once your probe hits something start digging. Be careful with the shovels too.

Respond to Victim

Check to see that the victim's mouth is not packed with snow. They will certainly be in some shock. If they are unconscious, begin CPR immediately, even if their entire body is not yet dug out. Cover the victim immediately with a jacket or blanket and know that moving a victim's body suddenly could cause cardiac failure from cold blood pumping from the extremities to the heart. Turn the victim's transceiver off if you have another victim to search for and, if the first victim is not in need of vital care, quickly move into your search for the next.

Practice

Practice, practice, practice! Use your transceiver before you go out in the backcountry. Practice with your friends. Hide a transceiver in the snow behind your house or in the fruit isle of the grocery store if that's what it takes to learn how to use it correctly and how to use it fast. Also, transceivers that work at 2,275 hertz should not be used; these are obsolete. The international standard frequency for avalanche transceivers is 457 hertz.

Article Written By Naomi Judd

Naomi M. Judd is a naturalist, artist and writer. Her work has been published in various literary journals, newspapers and websites. Judd holds a self-designed Bachelor of Arts in adventure writing from Plymouth State University and is earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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