Special Projects Director
Guest post by Tom Diegel
Another installment in The Little Things that aren’t necessarily taught in avalanche classes. These aren’t certified in any way by AAI or AIARE or any other formal avalanche program, and of course not guaranteed to save you, but as before, they might!
Make sure to check out Part 1.
This installment talks about the rest of your gear besides the beacon. In no particular order:
Shovel – if you don’t have a 3-piece/long-handled shovel, get one. It is hard to overemphasize how hard digging through avalanche debris is, and the extra leverage of a longer handle means you move can that much more snow, giving your buddy a better chance at not asphyxiating as you are blowing yourself to bits digging.
Probe – Make sure that you pull out your probe periodically and actually engage it so you remember how; I have seen many rescue practices where people fumble around with their probe trying to figure out how to lock it when it falls apart after their first thrust. I’ve also made the mistake of letting snow-melt get into my probe and freeze overnight in the truck, making it frozen and worthless. Make sure to dry your probe after using it.
Exploding balloon pack (air bag packs) – There is no doubt that avalanche packs work; there have been a lot of studies that have proven that. Sure they are a little heavy, but (finally) the weight is coming down (check Mammut’s system that is being licensed to others) as is the price. Some folks say that having an avy pack emboldens people to take more risks; my answer to that is “well then, get rid of ALL your safety gear!” For me an avy pack is not a ticket to ride; it’s an acknowledgement of my fallibility and helps with the odds when (not if) I make my next Big Mistake. If you can afford a quiver of skis, you can afford an avy pack. Caveats: rides with an airbag through trees, into terrain traps, and too short to bob to the surface diminish the effect of an airbag. Airbags need to be manually triggered for them to function, something that about 20% of those with airbags caught in avalanches fail to do. And floating on the surface doesn’t help the 25% of avalanche victims that die from trauma. For more info here’s a link to an old post about this by Bruce Tremper: https://utahavalanchecenter.org/blog/26291
Bindings – I keep seeing people skiing with their tech bindings’ toes “locked” (as in walk mode), and it makes me squirm. This 25 minute video has some good safety tips, and about halfway through goes into the mechanical details of the forces associated with locked-down toes. And here is a great tech binding release discussion on Wildsnow prompted by local skimo.co hero Jason Borro who has a lot of skin in this game.
The summary is that the binding release value goes to about 30 when the toe is fully locked. Yeah, I know – you’re a hard chargin’ Big Mountain Ripper type who can’t afford to have the bindings pre-release at the 60mph you typically ski at, but a) these bindings pretty much don’t pre-release, and b) locking your bindings to your feet….. sort of defeats the purpose of “releasable bindings”, both for catching trees and going for rides in avalanches (where skis drag you down). A victim of a fatal avalanche incident in the Ketchum area had her toe pieces locked in walk mode.
If you are still riding non-releasable telemark bindings or a split board, well, you need to acknowledge that you are assuming an additional – and notable – risk. Last season’s Canyons sidecountry avalanche victim Stephen Jones was found with both of his telemark bindings and skis still attached to his boots.
Poles – I also keep seeing people skiing with pole straps over their wrists. Wise Old Avalanche Guy Tom Kimbrough’s famous line about getting caught in an avalanche was (a deeply-growled) “Fight…. Like…. Hell!!” but it’s hard to fight like hell when your $50 poles that you didn’t want to lose a minute ago are inhibiting your ability to try to swim to the surface. And 3 times this year my basket has caught on something sub-surface and stuck in place while I blew past, and my shoulder is still intact because I simply let go of the grip and hiked back up to get the pole. The aforementioned Stephen Jones was found with both his pole straps still attached to his wrists:https://utahavalanchecenter.org/avalanches/26533
Climbing skins – arguably the most important piece of equipment you have. Frozen or snowed-over skin glue leads to skin adhesion failure. Duct tape and Voile straps can sometime save the day, but skin failure can lead to a long post-hole home at best…and hypothermia at worst. (http://unofficialnetworks.com/2016/02/montana-state-student-dead-after-climbing-skin-malfunction-1) After stripping my skins, I always fold them and put then in my jacket to keep the glue warm. Direct skin contact can sometimes re-invigorate frozen or snowy glue… but above all, protect your skins!
Colorful Clothes – While bright clothes have gotten more popular over the last few years, many are still in the black/grey/navy/dark green hues and thus are nearly impossible to see in forests, even with abundant white snow. Get at least a bright jacket (it looks better in pics anyway). I know of two instances where rescue helicopter pilots looking for accident scenes couldn’t spot the people because of their lack of bright colors (one of those blew his brightly colored airbag; a good idea).
Speaking of clothes, a puffy jacket is probably the most valuable item in my pack. I am always amazed at how quickly I get cold when I stop moving for more than a few minutes, much less having to sit for hours.
Hot bevvies – some years ago a friend broke his leg in a slide near Galena summit, and even though they were “close” to the road he nearly expired due to hypothermia. After that he carried a Jetboil stove, which I thought was kinda overkill, but years later, after digging out my own buried partner and recognizing that hypothermia was the next acute issue, he was most-dramatically revived and warmed by the piping hot tea in my thermos, validating my years of thermos-toting. I have done some testing on the many new thermal bottles and…they are fine, but there is no weight savings over a thermos and they don’t hold piping hot heat like my 12 year old thermos. I usually save the last cup for the car, in case it’s needed on the last run.
Emergency kit - here in the Wasatch it’s easy to get lulled into complacence because we are always above a road and are rarely out of cell range. However, after hearing tales of woe in remote places (two horrific falls in Hogum, broken femur in upper Alexander Basin, blown knees in upper Mill Creek and Broads, etc) and having broken most every piece of gear imaginable myself, I think it’s worth having at least a small kit:
- Lighter and fire starter (a piece of innertube acts a lot like a candle)
- Bailing wire (I have created a workable ski binding with some)
- Zip ties -a myriad of uses
- Multitool (with attachments for your various boot/binding screws – torx, allen, etc)
- Duct tape (an ER doc told me once that duct tape and pain drugs were all that he ever took out on adventures)
- Space blanket/bag (I used one once for an unplanned bivy, and it was sweet)
- A few Voile straps and hose clamps– a myriad of uses
- Disposable handwarmers
- Ibuprofen AND prescription mega pain killers
- Band aids, moleskin, and such.
- A headlamp. Because stumbling around in the dark just sucks.
- Extra AAA batteries – because they work for both avalanche beacons and headlamps
- Quick set epoxy and steel-wool (used to re-set a binding into the ski)
- Spare ski pole basket – try going uphill and downhill without a basket on a ski pole for a day if you don’t believe me.
We typically head into the mountains prepared for a great day and fortunately that is usually what we get. But things don’t always go right. When they don’t, all you have to save the day and possibly a life is what you carry on your body and what’s in your head. Choose your equipment wisely, inspect and practice with it now and then, and consistently contemplate what you’d do if things went sideways right now.
Stay tuned for the next installment: the power of habits.