Avalanche rescue and safety equipment for mountaineers

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Avalanche rescue and safety equipment for mountaineers


Written by John Cousins, Chief Officer, Mountain Training UK in consultation with BMC, MCofS, MI, AMI, BMG, BAIML, Plas y Brenin, Glenmore Lodge and Tollymore


Avalanche rescue and safety equipment of various kinds has been available for many decades. All of it is designed to locate or retrieve someone buried in an avalanche or to keep them near the surface or able to breathe whilst buried. None of this equipment assists with avoiding avalanche hazard. This remains the priority in avalanche education and is a subject that is very well addressed by recent innovations developed through the Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland (SAFOS), and supported by all the key mountaineering bodies(1). The shared aims of all of these organisations is twofold; develop widely accepted and commonly taught good practice regarding a thorough and robust planning and decision making process, and adopt common language and structure in avalanche education programmes.

Avalanche transceivers, and more recently air bag systems in rucsacs and snorkel like breathing aids, are used by skiers, albeit the more specialist off-piste kind who actively seek out steep, unmanaged slopes. The shovel could not be categorized as necessarily a specialist piece of equipment but there are many lightweight models designed specifically for snow and these are always carried whenever a transceiver is used, as is a collapsible avalanche probe.

Amongst mountaineers the use of this equipment is far less common. When this does occur, use ranges from only carrying a shovel, and occasionally probes, to the rare occurrence of transceivers being worn. A transceiver is a specialist item of equipment that requires training for all party members, if their benefit is to be worth their deployment. It is not the norm to carry such specialist equipment in winter for mountaineering or climbing and few people own them or have any experience of using them. To date there has been little research done on the pros and cons of such equipment to mountaineers but prevention (avoidance) is of course better than cure (rescue) and safety equipment doesn’t necessarily make things better if people take greater risks because they feel safer.

There are significant differences between travel on foot and travel on skis as well as between the alpine snowpack and the UK snowpack. These differences may explain the variation in the respective use of transceivers in these disciplines.

  • When skiing, the speed of travel; on the surface of the snow; over many altitudes and aspects, very largely in descent, requires a different decision making process compared to that when travelling on foot.
  • The alpine snowpack, in terms of depth, consistent colder temperatures, and deeply buried instabilities leads toward harder to identify weak layers, and a greater risk of burial.
  • The Scottish wind transported, often shallow, snow pack, in a maritime climate, appears much more likely to present a risk of trauma. Most incidents result in injury or death by trauma not asphyxiation where the use of transceiver would not have helped.
  • Travelling on foot allows the mountaineer to have a greater sense of snow structure and for this reason transceiver, shovel and probe are also not normally carried in Alpine climbing and mountaineering.

When it comes to the training of winter mountaineers then a cornerstone of the work of leaders, instructors and guides is that they act as role models and behave like "ordinary" walkers and climbers when teaching the techniques and skills that are commonly used by all. It is essential that these leaders, instructors and guides continue to use ‘best practice examples’ of techniques and equipment that are commonly available to recreational climbers and mountaineers alike. Minimalism is a firm part of every mountaineers approach and this means that every item of equipment has to fight for its place in a mountaineer’s rucsac, whatever their role.

There may be times when it makes good sense for those who go to the mountains in winter (on foot, on ski or by snowshoe) to carry transceivers, shovels and probes. However, this needs to be a decision that is based on the prevailing conditions, weather forecast, proposed itinerary, experience of the group and availability of specialist equipment. There is a very big difference between a mountain rescue team operating in foul conditions at night and a group under instruction learning about winter navigation. The former may have more limited choices in being exposed to avalanche risk whereas the latter should make safe travel decisions that avoid such risk.

Mountaineers have learned that blanket rules and policies rarely make good sense for sound decision making in the mountains. Everyone should ensure that they are free to regularly and consistently make decisions based on “first principles” to suit the specific situation at the time. In this way, they each make the best decision they can, each and every time, rather than resorting to a default setting.

Getting avalanched in Scotland is not an option and avoiding such incidents is imperative. This is achieved by conservative decision making, well informed venue choice and the use of fundamental techniques for safe travel.

Many thanks to specific discussions or written comments from Michael Anderson, Marcus Bailie, Lesley Beck, Karl Boyle, Jane Carney, Rab Carrington, Martin Chester, Mal Creasey, Mark Diggins, Trevor Fisher, Carlo Forte, Jon Garside, David Gibson, Owen Hayward, Steve Long, George McEwan, Bruce Goodlad, Mike Margeson, Heather Morning, Graeme Morrison, Graham Moss, Andy Newton, Iain Peter, Paul Platt, James Thacker, Tim Walker, Bryn Williams and Nigel Williams

(1) Mountain Training, British Mountaineering Council, Mountaineering Council of Scotland, Mountaineering Ireland, Association of Mountaineering Instructors, British Mountain Guides, Glenmore Lodge, Plas y Brenin and Tollymore