strike team shoveling final stages of evacuation

Strike Team Shovelling: Final Stages of Avalanche Excavation

February 28, 2022

In this part 2 of our Strike Team Shovelling series, we present how to fine-tune the final stages of avalanche excavation once you reach the victim.

Strike Team Shovelling Method: photo of final stages of avalanche excavationby Jordy Shepherd.

This three-part series by BCA ambassador Jordy Shepherd provides a detailed overview of the Strike Team Shovelling Method, which the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) started teaching in the past couple of years in all CAA AvSAR courses. In part 1 of this series, we demonstrate the best Strike Team Shovelling positioning and rotations. In part 2 of our Strike Team Shovelling series, we present how to fine-tune the final stages of avalanche excavation once you reach the victim. In part 3, we show what to do if the burial is so deep you don't actually have an avalanche probe strike.

With good Strike Team Shovelling techniques, you and your crew can hopefully excavate the buried subject reasonably quickly. But what do you do when you reach the tip of the probe and can just barely see which body part you have hit? There are some critical fine-tuning considerations for Strike Team Shovelling in the final stages of avalanche excavation. It is important to practice this before needing to respond to a real life-threatening avalanche incident.

You are digging down the probe, with your Shovel Strike Team. Once the probe tip and buried subject have been located by shoveling, place two shovellers with shortened shovel shafts side-by-side, and one on or both knees at the subject. The person shoveling toward the subject's airway should be the most medically trained person in your group. The other lead shoveller will work on excavating the snow from around the rest of the subject. Two other shovellers can be positioned behind the two lead shovellers, with their shovel shafts fully extended.

The two lead shovellers should initially each start to dig a channel to the outside of the excavation corridor, in the sidewall of the excavation corridor, at the level of the buried subject. The two shovellers in behind the lead shovellers help excavate the rear part of the two outside channels. Having two channels in the snow will give the lead shovellers a channel to move snow that has been excavated from around the subject. Once the side channels are dug out, (which should only take about 15-20 seconds), the two lead shovellers remove the snow from around the buried subject, sweeping the snow out the side channels they just created.

Final Stages of Avalanche Excavation: When the shoveller gets close to the subject's airway
When the shoveller gets close to the subject's airway, they need to be careful to not injure the subject with careless shovel strokes. Snow should be quickly but carefully removed from the subject's face, airway, and chest. If possible, note the time that the airway is reached.

Assess if there was an air pocket, a clear or obstructed airway, and if there are any signs that the buried subject is breathing or had been breathing for any time after the snow stopped moving. This might show with a clear airway (mouth and nose), the subject may be breathing and talking to you, there might be spit-up or blood on the snow in front of the airway, or moisture/ice lens formed on the snow in front of their airway as a sign that they had been breathing after the snow stopped moving.

Final Stages of Avalanche Excavation: If the subjects mouth and nose are completely obstructed with snow
If the subject's mouth and nose are entirely obstructed with snow, assume that they were unable to breathe after the avalanche stopped moving. Their airway might be clear of snow, but the compression of snow on their chest may have fully or partially restricted their breathing.

Remove any helmet strap, backpack chest strap, or clothing that might be restricting their breathing. Attempt to clear the subject's airway if it is obstructed. Clear snow off of their chest and back to allow them room to breathe. Give rescue breaths if they are not breathing, and note if the breaths go in. Check for a pulse for one minute.

Final Stages of Avalanche Excavation: If CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) is required
If CPR is required, rapidly shovel around the subject, and gently move them (using cervical spine precautions whenever possible and being gentle in case of hypothermia) to where you can provide effective CPR compressions (preferably onto a flat, firm surface). If available, apply an AED, use a bag valve mask and an oropharyngeal airway (OPA) or another airway device (it is a good idea to carry one medium-sized OPA, with you in your first aid kit), and apply oxygen. Utilize advanced airway management and advanced life support methods and equipment when available.

Backcountry Evacuation

If possible, move the subject straight onto a spinal immobilization device (such as a vacuum mattress or spine board) or a stretcher/toboggan to minimize the number of times that the subject will be handled. Handle the subject gently in case there is hypothermia or spinal or other trauma. Transport the subject to higher medical care. Contact an emergency physician as soon as possible after reaching the subject's airway, to get advice on patient treatment in the field and during transport to a hospital.

Jordy Shepherd is an ACMG/IFMGA mountain guide and BCA ambassador/instructor, living with his family in Canmore, Alberta. Jordy has lived, worked, and played in the mountains his whole life. His work experience includes: Canadian Avalanche Association Course Leader for Avalanche Search and Rescue Advanced Skills, Provincial Park Ranger, National Park Warden, wildlife-human conflict specialist, wildland firefighter, structural firefighter, mountain and industrial rescue specialist, heli-skiing operations manager and lead guide, and licensed real estate agent:

Jordy enjoys guiding and instructing clients to achieve their personal best, with a focus on the safety and enjoyment of the mountains.