Featured, Outdoors

Avalanche Companion Rescue: An Important Skill I Hope to Never Use

by Allison Sayer for Seward City News-
Kellen Stock turns off the transmitting beacon after the team digs out Wendy Wagner’s backpack. Photo by Allison Sayer.

Last year, as a prerequisite for an avalanche training course, I watched the chilling video: Rescue at Cherry Bowl.  The video tells the story of a group of skiers who were buried in an avalanche and rescued by another party in the area. One of the points that stuck with me was that the rescuers happened to have just completed a companion rescue training when the accident occurred. This point was made again by my avalanche instructors, who sent us off into the backcountry with the admonition: “Practice!”

I vowed to practice, but I forsook my vow. Almost a year later, my friend Dwight Iverson invited me to join him at a companion rescue practice hosted by the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC). I remembered my heretofore forsaken promise and I heartily agreed to go. While I was at it, I recruited SCN owner and snowboarder Steve Fink to join as well.

We met a team of avalanche professionals and volunteers at a large parking lot in Turnagain Pass at 11 am on February 17. The CNFAIC instructors began the training with a review of essential tools for backcountry rescue. They also went over some fundamentals of avalanche awareness. We then broke up into groups and began our field practice.

Field practice started with the procedure to test a group’s beacon readiness at the beginning of each day. Then, CNFAIC avalanche forecaster Wendy Wagner demonstrated the basic procedure of rescuing a buried partner. Wagner emphasized that in a real emergency, all of these basic tasks will be more difficult. She recalled an incident she was involved in, where she had trouble removing her own backpack due to the fear and stress of the situation.

Now it was our turn. Under the supervision of volunteer Trevor Clayton, Dwight and I each took a turn burying a backpack with our rescue beacons transmitting inside.

Dwight was the first to bury his backpack. I brought out my beacon and ran in the direction of the mock avalanche, watching the numbers on the display decrease. I slowed down when I was within a few feet of the “victim,” and began my careful, fine search.

Wagner told us the average range for one beacon to find another is about the length of a city bus. It sent a chill down my spine looking into the mountains and realizing how many city buses could line up, end-to-end, on each face.

When I had gotten as close as I could to my “victim” with my beacon, I took my probe and shovel out of my backpack. Even though this was a mock scenario, I could feel my heart racing when I put these tools together. This made me really thankful I was practicing these skills. I dug out Dwight’s backpack, and turned off his beacon.

Dwight Iverson uses his beacon to search for a “victim.” Photo by Allison Sayer.

It was Dwight’s turn to dig out my backpack next. He did a great job of remaining calm and extricating his “victim.” He remained focused on his task even when he had to post hole through deep snow and alders to arrive at the scene.


One thing Dwight noticed over the course of the training was that he didn’t like the mechanism that controls his avalanche probe. Avalanche probes typically sit in people’s backpacks for a long time without being used. It is much better to identify equipment problems in training than during the real thing. My probe broke instantly during my training last year. Once again, this was a “cheap lesson.”

Finally, Wagner buried a backpack. She buried the pack to a greater depth and at a greater distance than the previous scenarios. She then sent a group of two pairs out on the rescue.

Kellen Stock, an Anchorage-based snowmachiner, got within close range of the “victim” first. He then carefully began a fine search with his beacon. Other members of the team assembled probes and shovels.

It is agonizing watching another person carefully search the snow. Kellen did a great job, and I was proud our team let him complete the systematic process without interruption. Someone put a probe in his hand when he needed it. After a positive probe strike, we assembled in a formation to dig.

Strategic digging has been emphasized in recent avalanche trainings. In the past, rescuers have been extremely proficient with their beacons, but have not done the actual digging efficiently. If rescuers dig straight down towards a victim, the hole can begin filling itself in. Rescuers could also have a lot of trouble pulling a person out of a tubular hole, or reaching the person’s airway. Worst of all, Wagner told us, a rescuer could dig many feet down only to find the victim’s boot.

Before we started our scenarios, the CNFAIC instructors emphasized digging in from the side of the hill towards a victim. This technique creates a platform for the victim and prevents snow from re-collapsing in on them. They also instructed us to dig like a flock of geese, with the “point” cutting out snow and people behind getting the snow farther out of the way. In an extended situation, diggers should rotate positions frequently in order to keep their speed and stamina high.

It took four minutes to extricate the pack from the time we heard the call, “Avalanche!”

All of the participants reassembled in the parking lot for a hot lunch and warming fire provided by Alaska Mining and Diving Supply (AMDS). AMDS sells snowmachines in addition to other equipment.

After it was all over, I asked Steve Fink about his experience in the training. He said,  “I’ve been to other classroom/parking lot avalanche training sessions, and they were valuable, but getting up to Turnagain pass and actually running through deeper snow with your gear and digging out a simulated avalanche victim was well worth the drive and time. It was a beautiful day too, so I ended it with a skin up and run down [the mountain] as bonus.”

Enjoying a short tour after training. Photo by Dwight Iverson.

CNFAIC holds two annual free companion rescue practices in Turnagain Pass. The Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center holds one free annual practice in Hatcher Pass. CNFAIC also gives evening avalanche awareness talks in Girdwood and Seward during the early season. Look for these opportunities to refresh your skills or begin your journey. 

Of course, rescuing a buried partner is a scenario we all hope never to be in. All backcountry users should commit to a multi-day training to learn how not to get caught in an avalanche. I was fortunate to receive the Pumpkin Hill Scholarship for avalanche training last year. This and other scholarships are available every year. 



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