Snowmachines can be effective life-saving tools in the event of avalanche, but they also have their limitations
One of the very first things students are taught in an avalanche rescue course or basic awareness workshop is that for an avalanche victim, time is of the essence. The statistics show that 93 percent of avalanche victims can be dug out alive if uncovered within the first 15 minutes of a burial. After 45 minutes your chance of survival dwindles to less than 30 percent. Digital transceivers, predetermined search patterns and strategic shoveling techniques have all helped to shave precious minutes off of companion rescues, but how about using your snowmachine as a tool?
Like any tool, the snowmachine has its limitations and will ultimately take some practice. This is something I’ve been playing with over the last few winters with students and my co-workers at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC). Some benefits are obvious, such as the ability to quickly move upslope, hastily scan debris for visual clues or respond to an avalanche you may have witnessed a mile away. With a snowmachine, we can rapidly move rescue resources around, post a lookout or send someone to the ridge to make a phone call (if ample resources are on-scene). No doubt your sled can be a valuable tool for you as a first responder, but it’s important to recognize some limitations as well.
As with many of the other gadgets we carry into the backcountry (cell phones, cameras, radios, etc.) late-model sleds have on-board computers, blue tooth connectivity and other electro-emitting devices that negatively affect our digital avalanche transceivers, particularly in search mode. This electrical interference renders an avalanche transceiver nearly useless when attempting to search for a buried transceiver signal while still on your sled. Range is decreased by 50 to 70 percent and the interference from your running snowmachine provides directional challenges for a transceiver, i.e. really confusing and can waste precious time. In our tests, even standing on one runner and holding a transceiver at arm’s length wasn’t enough to overcome electrical interference. What works though, is to simply turn the machine off and take a few steps away. This quickly allows the searchers transceiver to re-orient and pick up a buried signal in order to continue an effective search.
*Please note, all tests were conducted with 2013 or newer Ski Doo Summit machines using a variety of different digital avalanche transceivers.
In short, your snowmachine can be an excellent tool to quickly and efficiently get you onto the scene of an avalanche, scan for visual clues and rapidly get you to the “last point seen” of a buried victim. Riders buried with visual clues, such as a hand breaking the surface, are alive today because of this quick snowmachine-assisted response. Without visual clues (glove, helmet, handlebar breaking the surface), next steps in an effective and efficient avalanche rescue will have to be done with the machine turned off, to avoid transceiver interference. In an ideal scenario, once an avalanche victim is extracted, the snowmachine can again become an extremely useful tool to quickly exit the field or shuttle more resources in order to provide for patient care.
As always, your best bet is to avoid being buried in an avalanche. Check your local avalanche bulletin, ride prepared and take a class. The Alaska Avalanche School will be offering snowmachine specific Level 1 and Level 2 courses this winter in which students can learn first-hand how to execute a safe and successful avalanche rescue using their snowmachine as a tool.
Graham Predeger is a life-long Alaskan who has been working in support of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC.org) for the past 6 years. He’s based in Girdwood.