Rethinking mountain rescue with ACMG guide Jordy Shepherd

November 16, 2020

Jordy Shepherd talks with BCA concerning his experience as a mountain guide, avalanche safety, and equipment innovation. He also touches on avalanche safety courses during COVID-19, and much more. 

In many ways, Jordy Shepherd was born for his job as Vice President of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. His grandfather became a warden in Revelstoke’s Glacier National Park on Rogers Pass in the 1950s and continued on to become the chief warden at Yoho National Park in the 1970s. This was during a time when mountain rescue was becoming a necessity due to several high profile accidents that made the community aware of the need for trained professionals to help with mountain-based accidents. So when Shepherd was a young boy in Jasper Park, Alberta, he knew that the option to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps was always a possibility. What he came to learn after taking avalanche courses and working for Parks Canada as a rescue specialist, is that he had a passion for learning and teaching how to standardize avalanche and mountain safety curriculum. We caught up with Shepherd to learn more about how he has been changing up the educational landscape of mountain rescue and applying new technology to improve safety in the backcountry. —Backcountry Access
Stephen Hanus

Backcountry Access: What’s your background as a mountain guide?

Jordy Shepherd: I joined the warden service after I got a Bachelor of Science degree which was required at that time to get into the program. Shortly after, I started to take avalanche courses with the intention to guide but also for professional development to become a mountain rescue specialist for Parks Canada. I’m not currently with Parks Canada but I worked with them for a number of years.

I’m a Realtor in Canmore, but in terms of guiding and instruction, I’ve gone in these directions: avalanche search and rescue education for professionals—that’s turned into helping to standardize education for recreational parties as well. I’ve been quite involved with recreational and professional curricula—we call it AvSAR (Avalanche Search and Rescue) Advanced Skills—over the last 10 to 15 years. And then I guide and instruct with my own guiding company. I figured that one way to improve education, techniques, and equipment was to work with companies to provide that equipment, which is why I’m with BCA.

BCA: What are you working to revamp with regard to the current avalanche education process?

JS: On the educational side, we’re constantly revamping the Canadian Avalanche Professional Level system and the public system as well. So, I’m involved with that mainly on the search-and-rescue side of things. I have quite a bit of experience in snow science and I helped do a bit of research in the past with the University of Calgary with snow science and developing techniques. But I mainly go out as a part of the development team for the professional and recreational level avalanche search and rescue courses.

BCA: What about the techniques is it that you’re working to improve?

JS: It’s interesting because we’ve done things like the AvSAR course. We play a video of avalanche rescue made by the National Weather Service in the late 1950s—my grandfather was possibly in that video; it was right around the time that he started working with Parks Canada and they were working specifically on avalanche control and avalanche search and rescue—things really haven’t changed that much. We still probe in the snow to find somebody. That’s what they were doing back in the day. We have transceivers, which came out in the early 1970s, so that was a change. But in the film, they have an old snow cat that shows up for the subject that they’re rescuing and they put them in a toboggan and ski them down the slope all wrapped in blankets to the awaiting snowcat to have them taken out, and it’s really not too dissimilar to what we’re doing now. But what I’ve seen in the last 5 to 10 years is that there’s more looking at individual techniques and individual pieces of equipment and more and more focus on not just doing a general focus on avalanche search and rescue. It’s more about really dialing down into shoveling, into transceivers, specific techniques for transceivers like stuff that happens less often, but you need to be prepared for that stuff: multiple burials, deep burials, close proximity burials. So all those techniques: shoveling, probing— breaking that down into the minutia—and myself and a number of other folks around the world realized that the more we dug into things, the more we understood how much we were assuming and missing things that could be timesaving, and therefore lifesaving, both with our equipment and our techniques.

BCA: Tell me about some of the equipment innovations that have made those efficiencies in searching possible.

JS: In general, probably the biggest change in avalanche search and rescue was the move to digital transceivers instead of analog tones—moving to numbers and arrows. And BCA was the first to do that. Knowing that they’re an innovative company motivates me to work with them. And I am working with them to push forward, not just to say that’s good enough and that’s where we’ll be at for the next ten years.” It’s saying “We’ve done a good job, but where do we go next?” That’s what we’re looking at. In general, the whole world is going more digital and leaning more on technology so I see the whole avalanche industry moving in that direction. And because of the digital revolution, it seems to be accelerating.

But there’s the caveat that technology can hang us up. We still need to keep our wits about us when we’re out in the backcountry. Even though you might be looking at a digital box that’s telling you which direction to move in and how far away the subject is, we do a lot of training about situational awareness and updating your mental map about where you are on the slope and the hazards around you and what other searchers are doing—and is there a crevasse or a creek or a tree to run into on the slope? Is there growing avalanche danger above the avalanche that’s already happened? Situational awareness isn’t totally solved by digital technology. So that’s where a lot of our education has gone.

One of the big things we focus on is case studies. Some of the best ways to learn are from other people’s mistakes. Having a lot of case studies where you can look at lessons learned from the comfort of a classroom—and not actually going out and having to learn the hard way by getting stuck in a dangerous situation—is a great tool for learning. And hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid it or deal with it better if it does happen to you. Generally in avalanche education, case studies are a big part of that.

BCA: Would you say that’s something that’s started to grow?

JS: Accidents and incidents are becoming better documented because people are cruising around with helmet cams on and there’s actual footage of people being caught in an avalanche or conducting an avalanche rescue. Or in doing snow science, the avalanche forecasters are out shooting videos now and showing how the layers propagate, so that’s definitely been a change.

BCA: In terms of third-party rescue (when one group comes to the rescue of another), is that a new area of rescue and training? How do you make sure people are interacting appropriately?

JS: We were looking at the techniques that were developed 5, 10, or 15 years ago now, and realizing that those techniques were being misapplied and mis-instructed. Not to the point where you were probably killing people because of it, but efficiencies were being lost and so I worked on the idea of strike team shoveling: strike team is a command system terminology for resources and so the idea is that you take that system and you roll that out as standard shoveling for professional and recreational parties and therefore, if I’m out doing a rescue and leading and there are people on site who are involved and who had this training, or there are other parties who come on-site—like a snowmobile group—I can ask, “Do you know strike team shoveling?” and they say, “Yes, we took our recreational level avalanche course and rescue training. Absolutely.” Then I can say, “Well, you can go work with these other two professionals and work together systematically and clearly for the same goal without having to do on-site in-the-moment coaching when you’re trying to save someone’s life.”

We always have to think about what the person under the snow would like. The person under the snow would like a very clearly organized and orchestrated, efficient shoveling procedure.

Standardization has been happening, but I feel like we’re taking it to the next level where the public is starting to use a professional Incident Command style structure and terminology and training, which I think is the best way to go.

BCA: What role does clear communication play in this process?

JS: Time and time again, communication is the biggest problem. If we can have people talk to each other from one side of the debris to the other, it reduces that confusion. So a classic example would be that if there is an avalanche incident in a group and the group has intragroup communication (radios). If there’s one person buried, multiple people can go down searching different parts of the debris, and then when they get a signal they can very quickly annunciate it to the other people searching and say, “I’ve got a signal, don’t bother wasting any more time searching up the slope where you are. Come down to me now.” But you can’t do that without radio comms on a really windy day or if you’re out of sight of each other, which can happen in a lot of avalanches. So the difference is that when you go to a group—whether it’s professional or recreational— who don’t have intra-group communication, efficiency is always going to be more of a problem. The BC Link radio line is huge in allowing for communication to happen within the group.

It’s also incident prevention. In terms of a lost skier or snowmobiler, if you can get on the radio and say, “Hey I haven’t seen you guys in a while, where are you?” they can say, “OK, we have apparently lost each other and got separated.” This happens easily with snowmobilers—you very quickly track up an area and lose where that last snowmobiler’s tracks went off. So if you can communicate with each other very quickly that you’re separated, then you can say, “OK what are we going to do now?” and start an orderly process to find each other again. And then you don’t need any rescuers to come out and find you because you can help yourselves.

BCA: What are safety and education concerns on your mind in the world of COVID-19?

JS: With COVID-19 I think there’s going to be a move toward online education for avalanche education, at least for the initial part of the public and professional training courses. But there will always have to be a field component to each level because there is no replacement for being in the mountains and on the snow when it comes to learning. But I think that’s something we’re going to be wrestling with for the next little bit. And we are seeing standardization of avalanche education between countries, but I think there is an opportunity to see further streamlining and embracing of international best practices of snow science and avalanche safety and search and rescue. The International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) is a great way to do that, but because of COVID-19, it has been postponed for a year. Standardization is the goal: We do a pretty good job, but I still see and hear of things being done differently in other countries. In Canada, we’re constantly trying to update our system to make sure it’s the most relevant. To ensure we are all following best practices, we really should all be looking at what everyone else is doing.