Monday, 14 November 2016

Avalanched. Getting Located Quickly

Time to get Recco aboard the new SAR Helo's
In Scotland there is a growing trend towards ski touring or free ride off piste and adventure skiing. Its pleasing to note that avalanche education is often talked about and is having an impact. This ultimately is what saves lives.  Good decisions are worth more than a shed load of gear. That's not to say that gear is not important and airbags are now more common and with a clean run out give you a better chance of staying on the surface and therefore surviving.  If you get to pulling the trigger in anger then somewhere along the line the decision process was flawed though. Part of being human and hopefully you live to not make the same mistake again. For those of you who are not on a big salary as airbags are not cheap then apart from the cheapest form of staying alive in avalanche terrain which is education and good decisions, then the triad of probe, shovel and beacon is your best hope. The prices have dropped quite a bit on this kit and its possible to get all three items (with three antenna beacon) for under £220. That's a pretty good investment on saving your life or that of a friend. 
At "the gate" below summit gully Glencoe.  RAF searcher finds a victim with  two 3m probes joined together.  Probing is slow!
Copyright Davy Gunn - crankitupgear Glencoe
Where are the mountaineers in this? Winter mountaineering in Scotland has never had the same ethos as winter alpine off piste skiing where carrying shovel, probe and beacon is essential.  One Scottish ski patrol and some mountain rescue teams now have a Recco detector. A lot has been said about Recco being a body recovery tool.  Mostly by people who have never used the system and who are quite ignorant of its effectiveness. Sure its part of organised rescue, and we all know that in the continuum from no rescue needed to organised rescue then organised rescue has poorer survival probability. This is because "triple H syndrome" (hypoxia, hypercapnia and hypothermia) are time critical. Modern clothing prevents or reduces any protective effect of hypothermia as its often just too good an insulator.  That's not to say long term survival isn't possible or Burnett would never have survived his 22 hours. With SPOT technology, mobile phones and ski patrol being nearby, or MRT's  maybe already deployed and re routed to a critical incident, then Recco mow has its place. It does work and has saved many lives. Reflectors are cheap and its good to have a few about your person. They don't have to be sewn into your clothing.  There are adhesive ones for boots or ones that will slip into a jacket pocket the size of a wee sweetie. While no substitute for an avalanche beacon they will get you found (only if the searchers have a Recco receiver). Recco searching is even more effective from the air by helicopter (the helo needs a £200 adapter kit) and with the new guuchi SAR helicopters being satellite broadband enabled then surely for mountain SAR they should have a Recco facility?
Recco is a World wide SAR network

The two-part system consists of a RECCO® detector used by organized rescue groups and RECCO® reflectors that are integrated into outerwear, helmets, protection gear and boots from hundreds of top outdoor brands. The reflector is permanently attached, requires no training and no batteries to function. It is always “on” and ready.

RECCO® reflectors do not prevent avalanches nor do they guarantee location or survival in the event of a burial, but they enable organized rescue teams to pinpoint the person’s precise location. The RECCO® history started on December 30, 1973 with a tragic avalanche accident in Åre, Sweden. Magnus Granhed, founder of RECCO® was riding the ski lift to the Mörvikshummeln when he heard a tremendous roar. An avalanche had ripped down the very steep slopes of Svartberget.

The result was chaos. Nobody knew how many people, or who, had been swept away in its path. “We started to search with our ski poles,” recalls Magnus. Later, probes and avalanche rescue dogs arrived, but in those days that was the only help available. Magnus remembers feeling “utterly helpless poking a ski pole into the snow” in an area the size of two soccer fields. By the time they found the two buried skiers the search had gone on for hours and both skiers had died. Right then he decided there had to be a better way to find people.
The accident in Åre set him thinking about the possibility of an electronic locating device to locate buried people. Granhed had just graduated with a Master of Science degree, and turned to Professor Bengt Enander, Department of Electromagnetic Theory at the Royal Institute of Technology in StockholmAfter some testing they saw that thermal imaging did not work, and transceivers were too limited so they tried to equip the skiers with a passive reflector. It took Enander’s team another two years, but the team’s work resulted in a PhD and the basis for the RECCO® System.
The problem was solved with harmonic radar. Just as is the case today, the reflector consisted of a diode that generates a harmonic when it is hit by the radar signal from the search equipment. The return signal, however, is much weaker than the search signal, and that was the great challenge for the project.  The challenge became how to filter out the strong search signal so that the weak signal from the reflector would be noticeable. At first, the range in air was only 5 meters, but today the RECCO® System manages more than 200 meters. The research team constructed and tested the first prototype in the winter of 1980-81 and RECCO® introduced its first commercial detector in 1983. It weighed all of 16 kg while today’s model weighs less than one kilogram. The first live rescue of an avalanche victim using the RECCO® System took place in 1987 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

Despite the early success of RECCO®, it was not until the 1990s when RECCO® gained acceptance by rescuers, and the mobile telephone industry helped. By the mid to late 1990s the huge demand for cell phones resulted in smaller and cheaper components. These improvements also resulted in much smaller and lighter RECCO® detectors that were easier for rescuers to handle. 

Following the lead of the increasing number of ski areas that have acquired RECCO® detectors – at present more than 700 ski areas and rescue teams worldwide – more than 200 manufacturers of outerwear, ski and snowboard boots, protection gear and helmets incorporate reflectors in their products. And it is not only the search equipment that has been continuously developed and improved, having progressed through nine generations since the start; the reflectors have also gone through major developmental stages. Thirty years of work lie behind today’s small reflectors.

Scottish RECCO trainer Davy Gunn

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