Thursday, 8 December 2016

Recco's at Nevis Range

I have just done a training session on the R9 for Nevis Range Ski Patrol. What a great and positive bunch of folk. The NR ticket office are selling reflectors and I recommend two, on opposing sides and top and bottom. It's always worth being more searchable.

Recco - another important part of the organised rescue strategy. Education and avalanche avoidance is primary, being found early by companions if it goes wrong is vital and prior practise makes this work. Organised rescue requires a triple response when companion recovery fails: Dogs, Recco and Probe Lines. Until recently Scotland has only been able to apply two of the three, unlike alpine rescue avalanche search where for years all three have been used as an all in approach. Survival is time critical. So it's really good that Nevis Range Ski Patrol are now equipped with a detector and for folk wanting the additional security to the three essentials they can buy Recco reflectors at the ticket office. Mountaineers in Scotland don't tend to carry the three essentials and education may well be the key, but it doesn't seem to change the fact that most fatalities are for mountaineers, often multiple burials in terrain traps and perhaps being searchable might just save a life or return someone remains to their loved ones for closure that much quicker even if sadly too late.  gives a fairly common sense approach. But errāre hūmānum es

Much has been made of trauma being the main factor in poor survival in Scottish avalanches. I have heard it punted often and its refered to in places like UK Climbing. Sometimes this is from professional mountaineers and even rescuers. Without any study from this country (Scotland) we can only apply the data from European studies and that indicates that 73% of deaths are from asphyxiation, 25% Trauma and 2% Hypothermia. Studies per country for example the USA are not dissimilar (see pic below) and several published studies support the notion that we can most likely say its most likely the same ratios apply in Scotland. Its also worth speaking to the rescuers who were on scene at some of the major Scottish avalanches, and while only anecdotal it lends support that the pattern is the same here. One catastrophic event in one Glen can easily overwhelm, but things need looked at over a long period and from all areas to make conclusions and avoid post incident bias from any one event where avalanche and trauma combine. This becomes especially important looking to the future as the victim base changes from primarily mountaineers to skiers who are now in ever increasing numbers skiing "Backcountry Freeride/Touring" and "Splitboarding".

To reiterate: Opinion from some might lead the public to believe that trauma is the main killer in Scottish avalanches. This is not backed up by evidence and may in fact be dangerous as it allows those hearing it to anchor to the precept that "being searchable" and carrying companion rescue equipment is pointless as its not the asphyxia, it's going to be trauma that kills you. This is dangerously misleading in my opinion. Trauma may well be a contributing factor on the time continuum of survival, and in some cases due to the unique nature of Scottish winter climbing Scotland may have some more pure trauma deaths from avalanche but that's not the whole story and the recreational demographic is changing.

So, its not a given from Scottish data collection (scope for a project for someone) and even if the odds are higher for injury, then unless folk are searchable victims who could be saved from asphyxia will continue to be lost under the snow until its too late. It's also incumbent for folk in avalanche education to give a broader picture as most ski students on an avalanche class will also be going abroad. My own experience is that its a trip to an unfamiliar country or wish to explore more off piste at an alpine resort that triggers folk taking an avalanche class as much as it is wanting to be aware of the Scottish conditions. We need to continue to give the bigger picture.

Further reading should include: 

Causes of death from avalancheBrugger HEtter HJBoyd JFalk M. 

Cause of death in avalanche fatalitiesMcIntosh SEGrissom CKOlivares CRKim HSTremper B.

USA figures are not too dissimilar to Europe but World studies and the numbers involved are much larger.

Some Scottish MR teams already have Recco as part of their search strategy (Tayside, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT/Ski Patrol) and Nevis Range, Glencoe Ski Patrol's. A good thing. I can imagine nothing worse than a victim recovery delayed because a search team did not have a detector and the victim is found to have either a Recco reflector or a harmonic on them.

Every avalanche professional including Recco, and the clothing manufacturers, endorse the view that not getting avalanched, through education and training is better than needing any search devices which may be too late. However, in the real world shit still happens and unless someone is "searchable" a rescuer cannot find them readily, even if the poor victim has bottomed out of the survival curve. We should not forget Robert Burnett's remarkable 22 hour survival in the Southern Cairngorms or the survivors at Nevis Range ski area who were buried for 18 hours.

All victims surely deserve the benefit of the doubt and rescuers throwing all resources at an attempt for a live recovery.
Small sticky reflectors that can be attached to boots or helmets and are available at Nevis Range
As "off piste" and "Back Country" skiing grows in popularity there is every reason to imagine that being more searchable can save lives. Nothing can replace education and prevention, or fast effective companion rescue with beacon, shovel and probe, but as ski patrol and MR teams take up Recco, and the reflectors can be bought and carried, then the chance of getting found alive by organised rescue if on scene quickly increases. I would recommend two reflectors to mountaineers, One front top and one back bottom.

So Recco is here in Scotland and its great to see the take up by some enlightened Scottish rescuers adopting alpine best practise. Who knows when Recco will save a life, but if it does it's job then its been  money well spent.
Live recovery of a victim located by her Recco reflector  from 1.5m winter 2016

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