Jul 08 2013

Technique: Avoiding avalanche trouble

As has become tradition, July 4th was a Delta weekend, which means windsurfing and/or kiteboarding. Sherman Island local Ray dropped by and we got in to a bit of a conversation about the perils of kiting and how his hang gliding and parasailing friends are always testing their release systems before they ever get airborne. He didn’t think any of his kiteboarding buddies did a similar check. He had me pegged and the guilt his observation triggered did cause me to double check the safety release on my chicken loop the next day. The parallels with backcountry skiing were unmistakable.

Fortunately I didn’t need to use it, but it turns out I did need to use some emergency skills later on that I had only learned about, but never actually used.

The wind was blowing steady at 18 mph, with puffs into the low-to-mid 20s. Unfortunately the holes were sizeable and on what turned out to be my last attempted jibe of the day my kite lost all power and fell on its back into the water. I didn’t panic, figuring I could get ‘er back up, and almost did, but neither the wind nor the kite ever synched up.

After 10 minutes I knew I was screwed and figured it was going to be a long swim in to shore. After another five minutes of trying to swim and pull the kite I realized that it would be hours before I’d hit land again. I’d completely forgotten the self rescue technique I’d been taught because I had never actually practiced it.

Thankfully a kiting buddy came by.

“Do you think you can get your kite up”, Matt asked?

“No way,” I replied. “It’s flipped over and the lines are wrapped around it.”

“You need to unclip and pull yourself in to the kite on the center line, then use the kite to pull you in.”

I was reluctant to let the bar go. Visions of the kite lines tangling around my legs and then the kite getting powered up and dragging me upside down through the water filled my head.

But then I realized that if I was pulling on the center line there was no way the kite could fly. I unclipped the chicken loop and hauled myself through the water up the center line, hand over hand, until I reached the kite.

It took a bit of manuevering but eventually I was able to hold the two ends of the kite together so it formed a makeshift loop and let it drag me through the water to the shore. The ensuing spaghetti-fest of my kite lines took a solid two hours before I managed to untangle them. I could have been pissed off and frustrated by that tedious task but I was thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t still in the river.

In fact, it was actually good that I went through that experience so that I would know what to do in the future as that situation is bound to recur someday.

It made me realize how timely Ray’s comments had been about practicing emergency procedures, not just knowing what to do, but going through the motions to do it. The consequences of not knowing what to do when hang gliding seem obvious. They may be less likely with kiteboarding, but are nonetheless worth knowing how to do.

It made me wonder if many of the avalanche fatalities that occur are the result of a series of minor mistakes adding up and becoming insurmountable for the victims inability to know, from practice, what to do to avoid the situation or deal quickly with the right emergency tactic. As the Tunnel Creek avalanche incident made clear, groups of strangers can make this lack of preparedness even more critical.

With snow the most important thing is communication among the group about the existing or potential avalanche danger. There is a tendency to just go with the flow because somebody knows what’s going on, right? Except in reality maybe nobody is really paying attention. Nor does anyone bother to speak up, and the apparent leaders, who probably don’t even know they’ve been nominated, or they volunteered but only insofar as they control the groups destination, not their well being, aren’t talking. It’s an all-to-common scenario.

How many times do groups get in trouble because they don’t bother to really stop and assess the conditions? I know I rarely do. Half the time it’s because I’m out with friends I have toured with a lot. In those cases there is actually some communication about conditions. We don’t belabor it, or go through a checklist, but we do talk about whether we think there is anything to be concerned about and agree on the safest line up and down.

One thing I haven’t done in a long time is actually practice a beacon search with friends. I’ve done it in an Avy I class, and at the beginning of a guided trip, but not with touring buddies. Though I know strategy makes a difference in digging, I’ve never practiced a body excavation with shovels and I’m not alone here, of that I am certain.

From the limited times I’ve been through mock rescues on Canadian hut trips we’re all secretly counting on being lucky enough to not have to really use those skills that are clearly rusty from lack of use. Perhaps if we practiced them more they might prove useful, but in the meantime we’re all counting on prevention to avoid revealing how little we really know. That and luck.

The more I’m out, the more I think luck is the dominant factor in staying alive in avalanche terrain. It isn’t like I haven’t been caught, because I have. So far though, I haven’t been buried.

In some ways it’s a scary thought that the reason I’m still able to enjoy the backcountry is because I’m just plain lucky. On the other hand, I’d rather be lucky than to have to test whether or not I really know how to perform an avalanche rescue. How about you? When you head out into the backcountry, are you confident you’ll return unscathed because you know what you’re doing and you’ve practiced rescue techniques, or are you just feeling lucky?

© 2013