Thursday, 1 December 2011

Tales from the Battlefront

Ski Patrol Level 1 Course - Signal Search T2
At Glenmore Lodge on a BCA lecture, the subject of secondary avalanches came up and the general fact that these are uncommon, and often the safest place for companions/rescuers is on the initial tip. I mentioned that in organized rescue in Scotland secondary avalanches are a grave risk because often the initial slide is in high corrie’s surrounded by other gully’s or corniced scarp slopes and rapid increases in temperature cause spontaneous release as frontal systems move through.  These are natural terrain traps and the rescue leader cannot easily reduce the risk to rescuers if they have to search in such areas, they can only apply resources to mitigate the consequences to the rescuers of a secondary slide. So rather than risk reduction its consequence reduction. This topic is covered well in the book “Managing Risk in Extreme Environments” by Duncan Martin where the leader of the PHGM Chamonix and I contributed to the mountain rescue chapter. I mentioned the incident below as an example but didn’t go into detail. I was later asked about it so here goes for you folks who are interested:

A secondary slide nearly took out many members of a rescue party I was leading. I was the newly appointed deputy leader of Glencoe MRT in January1994 when we were called to an avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor’s Lagangarbh Corrie to search for 3 walkers who had only just entered the mouth of the Corrie into the gulch at the bottom when a very big hard slab was triggered from 2,000ft above at the cornice by a descending climber.  All 3 were buried.  As we approached the debris pile in the gulch the temperature was going up and it was the dark.  One of the team, Steve Kennedy said he felt uneasy and shouted stop "listen" saying he could hear something. In no time little ice particle were visible in our head torch beams and someone shouted “avalanche”. A massive secondary slide had come off the West flank of the Corrie. I remember scrabbling up the steep rocks at the side of the gulch and moving right as the flow came up like a rising tide at our feet.  My vivid memory is of my colleagues head torches bobbing, hearing rasping breathing, and folk shouting until we were clear.  The gulch with the original debris pile would have had side walls of about 60ft when we were in it.  The gulch had filled in until it was level, the block debris was up to and beyond the path that runs above it at one point with a tip that extended 100m top to toe.We were lucky to all get out.

I don’t recall ever in my 35 years in MRT ever seeing then or since a group of experienced rescuers so shaken up.  It was clear that there was no hope for the survivors and despite 4 days of continuous digging and trenching we didn’t get anywhere near a probe strike. Only a couple of days later we were called to another 3 victim burial on the other side of the mountain and the team found all 3 victims by spot probe strike and all dead. Again sadly I was one of the first on scene.  At that time I was full time ski patroller at Glencoe Mountain (I worked some 8 seasons all in over the years as a profesional patroler) as well as the team’s deputy leader and only experienced medic. The winter before I had done a season working in the French Alps where Fiona was head of ski school in Pra Loup. The Alps felt much more predictable and a lot less dangerous than Scotland and after many more trips abroad I still feel this way! Anyway, I digress. The point is that every day for the next 2 months I drove past the mountain looking up and wondering when we would have to go back in there. This was not made any easier by the presence at a neighbors of the wife of one of the victims whose husband, son and prospective brother in law were the folk who were buried. She, understandably could not rest until we had recovered her family. I take my hat of to the then new team leader John Greive for whom I was deputy leader, for managing this difficult time. The months before these avalanches and after, were the busiest the team had ever had for trauma and avalanche up to that point, and there was huge world wide media attention with satellite dishes and media vans all over the place.  In that 12 month bracket I personally as team paramedic had attended to 16 fatal accidents 8 of whom were avalanche victims. The media pressure and safety considerations for John as team leader were considerable and way beyond what would normally be expected in MR, so “chapeu” as the French say.

Eventually early April of that year a party of RAF MR and Glencoe MRT including me went up into the corrie and managed to recover the victims.  One had been in a big natural air pocket near a small stream entrant below a crag. This I found most upsetting.  As a postscript to this story the lady who lost so much, eventually moved into the area and has become a very active member of the local community. The resilience of the human spirit in the face of  such overwhelming tragedy is remarkable.

Before this tragedy I had dug many folk out of avalanches as part of Glencoe MRT.  Since then as part of MR sadly very many more.  With Ski Patrol thankfully there are many survivals and positive outcomes. I suppose over the years I must have been involved in at least 70 avalanche incidents, some of which in MR took days and months to conclude. 27 of these have been fatal. As an MR no one I have been called to help who has been buried has been dug out alive. Those on the surface have all had trauma both physical and emotional.
Lost Valley 1989 Too Late Sadly
It’s been quite a journey from my first avalanche rescue way back in the early 1970’s. The first beacons or “Pieps” that Hamish MacInnes aquired and how hopeless we all were with these analog single antenna units yet we thought we were good when we were really crap!  The balloons we tried flying above us in horrendous conditions in Great Gully as well. The formation of the SAIS by Hamish and Eric Langmuir had a huge effect (I got offered an observer job in Glencoe but went to work in the Alps instead).  The SAIS has and continues to have a huge impact on the reduction of avalanche accidents. Over the years I have often enjoyed the company of the Glencoe SAIS observers, watching what they do, bagging the odd route along the way with them and developing my own interest in snow science and learning along the way from these guys.

I have always enjoyed skiing fresh tracks and as a ski patroller avalanche control is a huge part of the job. Many folk don’t realize that some Scottish patrols blast and ski cut slopes. Ski Patrol is very positive job. 2009 saw me leave MR after another 3 victim burial tragedy at the same place as the story above. The difference this time being that as a rescue many things went a bit awry in my view, buried victims being winched out of deep snow by the first on scene SAR crew by helo strop (what’s the other biggest killer of avlx victims? Trauma!) to walking up the hill alone with thankfully 4 other MRT lads deciding to follow me, then finding that someone was still missing  and the majority waiting for a SAR helo that eventually picked them up but couldn’t then fly them in due to bad weather so we were on our own.  Fate decreed that it would be my spot probe strike that would find the victim. We dug him out and gave him the best chance of survival possible. That was to be my last MR job.

I decided that I would stand back from MR and continue to develop the ski patrol avalanche modules and along with my small bike business try and do some avalanche education work. I should also mention that in addition to having the bike business which has 15 hire bikes and does sales and repairs which is very much a small family enterprise involving my three children and Fiona, I also work for Joint Services Mountain Training. These tri services centre’s specialize in training the high level services adventure training instructors. We have a ski centre in Bavaria and other basis for expeditions all over the world from Trailsend BC Canada to Nordic touring at Sjuschen in Norway.  Very professional instructors and IFMGA guides make this a fantastic and rewarding environment to work in.  Most of my work these days is not instructing but managing expedition equipment as well as the running of the Wing here with a Captain from APTC.

On the ski and avalanche side its fairly apparent that not very many folk have the experience (some of it from tragedy and bad experience I grant you) of avalanche prediction and prevention, avalanche control, organized rescue, companion rescue and avalanche education, and who are still at the sharp end when it’s a powder day. In 2005 I was invited to the FIPS international congress in Tignes France hosted by the Chef de Pistes Jean Louis Touaillon  ex president of AENA the French avalanche organization. They wanted me to give a keynote lecture – on avalanche rescue and trauma. Thankfully it went well.  The family and I had a fantastic week and lifelong friendships were forged.  Since then FIPS has been to Snowbird Utah, Are Sweden and last year it was to be Japan which I was all wired for, but a small matter of a nuclear meltdown after the Tsunami put paid to that.  So next year Jean Louis has stepped up again and the congress is in Chatel, so not too far a bus ride from Geneva!
FIPS ARE Sweden - Shoveling. Herman Brugger IKAR in Background

Over the years through work I have dealt with Pieps, Ortovox, Mammut and Arva. All are good makes and do the job.  But, and it’s quite a big but. The best educational and prevention work is done in the USA in my opinion. Training will always be an issue to both the lay user and voluntary rescuer, so for personal safety a beacon needs to be simple and reliable with  battle condition friendly interface i.e. BFG buttons and lights and idiot proof.

I am very lucky to have Anatom the importers of Back Country Access kit helping me promote avalanche avoidance and companion rescue. I went to them not because the other makes are not good, but because BCA educational backup is superb and continually developing new ideas. One such idea “Strategic Shoveling” has been incorporated by other brands (copying being the sincerest form of flattery but no one worries as it saves lives).  The T1 was good but the T2 is the only “real time” beacon that’s really easy to use. The BCA products from search and rescue kit to lightweight touring is all very well thought out and as much as anything, the BCA image is bright and positive which I think brings an appeal to the young freerider or tourer. It builds on positives and not dark Nordic tragedy.  At least that’s my take! So thanks to Anatom we in Scotland have more beacon training parks than some Alpine countries, a well supported SAIS, and a range of off piste safety and avalanche avoidance and rescue initiatives. Personally I find it one helluva lot more fulfilling preventing tragedy than picking up the pieces after it.  Should anyone wish to purchase a beacon or any back country touring kit please give us a call. Advice and help is free.
Ally - Fly Paper 20 mins under and OK!

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