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If avalanche beacons are supposed to save lives,

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#1 Irondog


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Posted 05 February 2012 - 01:27 AM

Your brain beats beacon for avalanche safety

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(02/24/08 04:43:10)

If avalanche beacons are supposed to save lives, why do so many people who wear them end up dead?

Christopher Vonalvensleben, 25, and Jeremy Stark, 27 -- who sadly died in an avalanche above Seattle Creek on the Kenai Peninsula on Feb. 15 -- are only the latest.

Before them it was 39-year-old mountain hiker Morgan Cowles in California's Sequoia National Park on Jan. 28.

Before Cowles, 23-year-old skier Michael McKay near California's Mountain High Resort on Jan. 25.

Before McKay, 20-year-old skier Tyler Stetson at Beehive Basin in Montana on Jan. 20.

Before Stetson, two snowmobilers near the North Fork of Wyoming's Cottonwood Creek on Jan. 12.

Who those two snowmobilers were is unclear, because news reports say snowmobilers Alan Jensen, 55, Kim Steed, 51, and Scott Bennett, 42 all died in the same avalanche, but only two of them were wearing beacons.

It appears no one has ever studied how many avalanche victims are, on average, wearing beacons. But it was possible to ferret out beacon information on most of the last 16 people who have died so far this winter in avalanches, according to www.avalanche.org -- an avalanche-tracking Web site for snow professionals.

Of those 16 fatalities, all coming within a month's time, eight were reported to be wearing beacons, four were reported to be without, and the status of four others could not be determined. The beacons made the bodies of the dead easier to find but didn't save them.

Stetson, a student at Montana State University, was buried only 10 minutes before friends dug him out, according to Montana newspaper reports. The quick recovery didn't matter; he was already dead.

According to avalanche experts, this isn't unusual. About one in four people caught in snowslides die from what is called "blunt force trauma'' -- beat to death by Mother Nature. It doesn't matter how fast your friends get to you if you are dead before the snow stops moving.

Of those who suffocate, many die simply because no one can get to them fast enough. Either their friends are slow in locating them, despite the help of beacons, or they are buried deep in compacted snow.

Shoveling avalanche debris is like shoveling wet concrete. Even fit people with good shovels find it hard.

If someone is buried 10 feet deep, you're going to have a tough time getting there quick enough with that Mickey Mouse little plastic "avalanche shovel'' so many people carry.

Yes, people have been saved by wearing beacons.

There also have been plenty of people not wearing beacons who have survived avalanches.


And there is no denying a beacon could save your life. Could.

If you aren't killed by going over a cliff or being smacked by your tumbling snowmobile.

If you have friends on top of the avalanche who can immediately begin searching.

If those friends are quick to locate your beacon.

And if those friends can dig like backhoes.

That's a lot of "ifs.''

If buried, you've got about 15 minutes for all the "ifs" to come together in your favor. After 15 minutes, the chances are good that you're dead or close to it.

This is the upside of the avalanche beacons. The downside exists in one simple question:

How many people have beacons killed?

"...The very gear that can save your life in an avalanche may also contribute to the poor decisions that lead to such accidents,'' Hannah Nordhaus wrote in the Rocky Mountain News on Feb. 5. "Call it the transceiver trap. Avalanche transceivers have, sometimes for the worse, changed the way we approach avalanche risk."

Nordhaus was reacting to the death of 33-year-old Matthew Gustafson of Vail, who perished in an avalanche in the East Vail Chutes, a backcountry Colorado run popular with skiers. Nordhaus wore an avalanche beacon and skied with a friend. Neither saved him.


"A number of news reports ... explained that the victim had 'done everything right' because he had worn an avalanche beacon and carried a shovel and a probe," Nordhaus wrote. "With all sympathy for the friends and family of the people involved in this horrible accident, it's rare that any skier caught in an avalanche did everything right."

Personally, I'd put this more bluntly.

Survival is the right thing. Death is the wrong thing. If you die, you have, by definition, screwed up.

Death in the outdoors is the ultimate mistake.

Do avalanche beacons contribute to these deadly mistakes? I don't know for sure. I couldn't find where anyone has studied the subject, but I tend to agree with Nordhaus' observation. There is also this fact:

Avalanche fatalities haven't gone down since beacons appeared on the scene. They've steadily gone up.

From the 1950s into the mid-1970s, U.S. avalanche deaths averaged fewer than 10 per year.

They started going up along with a boom in backcountry skiing in the early 1970s, but they stayed below about 15 per year until the mid 1990s. Since then, they've soared.

Deaths now average about 30 per year across snow country, and Alaska tends to be the per-capita leader.

What has changed? Well, for one thing, beacons are a lot more readily reliable than they were in the 1970s, and a lot of people wear them thinking they are the magic bullet that can save one from death in an avalanche.

And, probably as significantly, snow machine technology has gotten better.


Thirty years ago, nobody ever died at Seattle Creek, because the snowmobiles of the day simply would not allow anyone to get in there to ride. Now, quite a few people can make it over the ridge on the north side of Turnagain Pass to explore Seattle Creek.

Better gear is a blessing, but along with it comes a need for better judgment. Better judgment isn't helped by expectations of being saved by "safety gear" if the worst happens.

Neither is such judgment encouraged by post-mortem rationalizations about the things the dead people did right or, worse, the stupid observation that "they died doing what they loved.''

The problem with dying doing what you love is that you don't get to do it anymore. I'm sure if any of the dead were around today so we could ask them opinions, they would say they would much rather be out skiing or snowmachining than dead.

I would also guess they might tell others that an avalanche beacon isn't really a life-saving device so much as a last-ditch hope for survival. The life-saving device is your brain. You use it to assess avalanche conditions. And then you avoid the areas likely to be dangerous. That's how you avoid death by avalanche.

#2 kthumper


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Posted 21 February 2012 - 09:23 PM

No truer word were ever spoken. Lots of good advice here.


#3 wuzup


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Posted 29 February 2012 - 05:07 PM

Amen brother, good advice that I take out on my next ride

#4 Rev Kev

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Posted 07 March 2012 - 10:08 AM

Same thing our avalanche instructor said, beacons are more likely used to recover a body, your brain and knowledge, will save your life. Education is key.

#5 ferniesnow


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Posted 10 March 2012 - 12:11 AM

Well written ID. Good thought process and something to think about.

I suppose what skews the stats is all the guys that are found and successfully dug out (come out alive) that are not reported. We have had 2 in the last week in our little area. How many/week would there be in North America?

I also suppose that beacons/transievers are like air bags; another tool in the tool box and it depends on a lot of things if they will actually save your life.

Mother Nature can be brutal and some people believe if it is your time, so to speak, there is nothing one can doo to circumvent it. Even if you stay on the couch, you could have a heart attack if it is your time.

ferniesnow on YouTube; over 100 great, action packed videos for you to enjoy!


#6 Never Summer

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Posted 23 March 2012 - 08:17 AM

I really wonder how many people out there actually have any kind of knowledge of the indicators and training with a beacon.
How often do you see lots of people on a slope at the same time. How many people practice with their beacons. For everything to go "right" you pretty much need to locate a person within 1 minute. Even if you get to them in a minute, it is surprising how difficult it is to get a positive probe strike. How many people know the proper patterns for probing? Digging just 1 foot off in concrete snow can easily add minutes onto the recovery time...

#7 snowww1


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Posted 18 September 2012 - 10:40 PM

One of the problems is that people wear beacons, but don't practice and are not proficient with the beacon or rescue.

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