Site Control, “Renegade” Signals and Cat Herding: The Importance of Leading an Avalanche Rescue Exercise

In big avalanche rescue scenarios with lots of moving parts, site control is paramount. Photo by Jordy Shepherd.

By Bruce Edgerly

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve had the chance to lead a group in an avalanche rescue exercise–either in an avalanche course, on a guided trip or, less fortunately, in real life. Being the leader of a group avalanche rescue exercise is probably the most valuable experience you can have in your avalanche education. It will prepare you to deal with many more variables outside of beacon searching, probing, and digging–skills that should be “locked down” by now. But add humans to the mix and you’ve got complexity on an entirely different level, including the realities of site control and “renegade signals.”

I re-learned this the hard way last week. It was on an avalanche rescue exercise on the first day of a week-long ski touring trip at Golden Alpine Holidays’ Meadow Lodge, in B.C.’s Esplanade Range. While “multiple burials” are often considered a challenging scenario, they can be straightforward since the victims aren’t moving. What can torpedo any search, however, is “renegade” transmit signals coming from searchers or bystanders unfamiliar with their transceivers. What makes this complicated is that these transmit signals are moving–and therefore hard to troubleshoot. If you’ve taken part in group rescue drills, you’ve probably witnessed this yourself.

This POV footage of a chaotic avalanche rescue was taken at Crystal Mountain, WA in 2012. A lack of site control and a multitude of renegade signals (starting at 4:30 in the video) caused long delays in making the live recovery.

We were on a guided trip with ACMG Mountain Guide, Rich Marshall, no slouch when it comes to transceiver rescues. Marshall rescued five of the ten survivors of the 2003 avalanche at Connaught Creek Valley, B.C. that engulfed a group of 17 students and teachers from the Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School. The one concept that he drove home at our rescue orientation was “site control.” Always count how many people are present. Always make sure the scene is safe before entering. Call early for outside resources. And always make sure everyone is in search mode before the searching begins.

Guide Rich Marshall orients the group outside Golden Alpine’s Meadow Lodge. Photo by Bruce Edgerly.

Being the one person on the trip in the snow safety industry, I was immediately nominated as the avalanche rescue exercise leader, a role that I wanted, as this is a rare opportunity to practice higher level skills. As soon as the drill commenced, I lined all ten guests across the slope, ten meters apart, and began delegating, choosing to keep my eyes on the “big picture” rather than breaking out my own transceiver. “Call out your distance readings when you get a signal—and don’t commit to your fine search until you have a reading of ten meters or less,” I shouted, recalling a technique we refined several years ago called “searching in parallel.”

Quickly several of my friends picked up a signal. They had probes and shovels deployed before I could even bark out more orders. At least one target was already found. But another cluster of rescuers was floundering nearby. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “Rich set up a super close-proximity burial.” These are often the most challenging. But none of those searchers could seem to define where to begin probing. And no transceiver brand seemed to make a difference. Finally, I got down on the ground and began bracketing with my Tracker3. When it seemed like I’d found the lowest distance reading, suddenly they went up again. “Did he bury them on top of each other?” I thought to myself. “No way would he do that on our first exercise.”

“What does it mean,” Rich said, “when the numbers are going up like that?” I looked up to see if he’d hung a beacon in a tree, another common trick played by instructors. But there were no trees. At this point, most of us had given up hope.

Finally, I decided to get a better idea of what was going on, so I went into Big Picture mode, which shows all signals rather than just the closest one. There were two signals nearby and another one 28 meters away. Huh? Since I knew there were only two “victims,” I immediately took off to investigate the other signal, making the classic mistake of leaving my pack behind (with all my rescue tools in it). “Follow me,” I yelled.” I’m going to need a prober and some shovelers.” We had the next target pinpointed in less than 30 seconds and excavated in less than two minutes.

Debriefing after our rescue exercises: Which one of these renegades was transmitting?

Both avalanche rescue targets were now recovered, but the second one clearly would not have survived in a real situation. What happened? “Did you check everyone at the beginning,” Rich offered, “to make sure they were in search?” Well, I checked about half the group, and fellow searcher (Scarpa North America CEO) Kim Miller checked the others. We thought we had it covered. But apparently we didn’t check everyone–and we neglected to get everyone to turn off their personal electronics, which can sometimes create “false triggers.” Next time we’re setting up a checkpoint that you can’t pass through until you’ve been clearly vetted.

We’re still not sure who was in transmit mode (nobody ‘fessed up), whether electronics were to blame, or whether someone reverted to transmit after our “inspection” through the automatic return-to-transmit function on some transceivers. We debriefed and did another drill. No “renegades” this time. I went right into Big Picture, saw the next signal, and went straight to the other avalanche victim once the first was being excavated.

The take-home message is that practicing transceiver searching, including multiple burials, isn’t good enough. There’s an infinite number of scenarios that can take place and you need to be able to cope with all of them. Renegade signals are probably the most frustrating. But the other is communication with other rescuers, especially in large scenarios and adverse weather (this is where BC Link radios come in). And then there’s cat herding: Some people just aren’t ready to follow directions or take a back seat. No more than one person performing the fine search! Everyone else should have probes and shovels out, following instructions from the appointed avalanche rescue leader.

And finally, the leader must be assertive. You can have 25 years of experience in snow safety (like me), but if you’re soft-spoken, maybe you’re not the right guy. Next time, I’m putting Miller in charge!