Mountain Rescues and the Amazing Race

If Zev and Justin were rescuing me from an avalanche I would have died. Let me explain…

On Sunday, May 1, 2011, on the Amazing Race, the American CBS television show where teams of two race around the world and compete in various tasks unique to their destinations, had the remaining contestants perform one of two tasks before they could advance: Search for an avalanche victim or rescue a fallen climber in a crevasse.

Two teams got to work on the crevasse rescue and three others, including Zev and Justin, searched and dug among avalanche debris. Or at least that’s the way it seemed. The tasks illustrated the general idea of what needs to be done, but in the real world… well… training is different from real life. Generally speaking, people entering areas with these real life dangers of crevasses and avalanches are well aware of the dangers and risks. Here’s the basics:

Crevasse Rescues 

Crevasses are fissures like deep cracks in glaciers created by their gradual movement. They move several feet a day and if the glacier were shown at fast speed over days or months would look like a roaring river.

Mountaineers and hikers don’t usually fall into open crevasses; it is the one’s they don’t see, covered by snow bridges that are really dangerous. It might appear the field or slope ahead is reasonably even and smooth, but underneath are the fissures you saw the contestants being lowered into to rescue a fallen climber. This is why rope teams are important. Some solo climbers have even employed using over-sized snowshoes or a long ladder strapped around their waist in hopes of preventing a fall into a crevasse where no one would find them.

Rescuing someone in real life is usually more complicated than what the show demonstrated. For example, the struts for the winch system typically are not in place unless a rescue team from down in the valley are equipped with one and the edges of the crevasse can support such an apparatus. This means the climbers must use the gear they have with them. While a pulley would be ideal, the rescuers may not have one and must use what is on hand, like slings or figure eights or other belay devices. Also, the rescue could take several hours to accomplish.

Not to be overly morbid, but when people die in crevasse falls they tend to do so from internal injuries from the fall or from starvation if they cannot escape by themselves; crevasses can be enormously dark caves with overhanging walls, and without the right equipment, cannot be ascended.

Searching Avalanches debris

First of all, to make the task on the show a challenge, the mannequin they searched for was buried about four feet deep in a gently sloping plain of snow in what appeared to be a col. Avalanches can happen on virtually any slope when a layer of the accumulated snow loses its grip on the layer below it. Snow has dozens of varying consistencies, which means some bond together better than others.

It helps if the avalanche victim is wearing an avalanche beacon and the rescuers have them too. Climbers involved in the search and rescue (SAR) effort can turn the device to receive in order to find the victim. If beacons were not used by the climbing party then rescuers have to resort to more traditional, low-tech avalanche probes — long, narrow poles to poke the snow in hopes of finding the missing climber. Today, these are often special dual-use trekking poles.

Under normal circumstances, the victim does not have a lot of time. The weight of the snow, and often the inability to determine which way is up, make it difficult or impossible to help oneself. Victims usually perish from asphyxiation. Some climbers and backcountry skiers have used the Ava Lung from Black Diamond Equipment, which helps buy an avalanche victim more time by helping the victim displace CO2 from fresh air.

Bottom line in avalanche recovery is to know how to search and work quickly. Best of all, both as rescuer and climber: Be prepared!

At the rate Zev and Justin worked I don’t think I would have made it, even with an Ava Lung.

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