Awe-inspiring and incredibly fearsome, clouds of snow roar down a mountainside – an avalanche that collects everything in its path and buries it without deference to ownership, value, or life. When an accumulated pack of snow has too much of a load, anything can trigger an avalanche – the weight of a skier or an animal, and even a loud noise. Around such destructive forces, it’s about staying alive.
Mike Laney’s passion is helping people stay alive in avalanche territory. This is his story.
No spectacular avalanche incident launched my lifelong passion for avalanche safety and rescue education. Instead, I learned that without the excellent avalanche education I received through the National Ski Patrol (NSP), I probably would not be alive today.
In 1967, I began my first paid ski patrol job at a resort classified as a high avalanche hazard area. Fresh out of college, I had practically no experience in patrolling. Fortunately, the resort already had an NSP volunteer patrol with members who were both qualified avalanche safety and rescue instructors as well as experienced avalanche blasters (who initiate controlled avalanches with explosives). I trained with them on weekends and practiced what I learned midweek.
Instead of being caught up in an avalanche that season, I became a competent avalanche forecaster and blaster. I also developed a strong interest in avalanche education. Sensing that interest, the NSP instructors invited me to help teach avalanche safety and rescue courses. My interest blossomed into passion for the subject.
I realized that education could keep people from exposing themselves to danger and save more lives than rescue ever could. At the same time, I understood that, despite safety education, part of human nature is to take risks, so the need for increasingly effective rescue would continue.
To patrollers, a reported avalanche incident always must be regarded as a life-threatening emergency; few other aspects of patrolling have such immediacy. Further, the first assessment is for safety at the scene; it is likely that neither the scene nor the approach is safe.
Photo: Candace Horgan
The first wave of NSP rescuers deployed to an avalanche scene is equipped with rescue beacons (transceivers), shovels, probes (long poles to push into the snow), and flags to mark its route for those who follow. Members of the first team ensure that the area is safe from another avalanche, look for unburied victims, yell and listen for voices, perform a beacon search, turn over surface snow looking for clues (tracks, clothing, equipment), and probe likely spots to find survivors. Rescue dogs often accompany the team.
A second team includes medical personnel who treat survivors, then evacuate them from the area.
The third team arrives within an hour and supports the first two teams, often replacing members of the first two. If needed, the final group forms probe lines to search the scene methodically for possible survivors.