Burials deeper than your avalanche probe are not common, but if one occurs, you should be practiced in this Strike Team Shovelling technique for the greatest chance of survival.
Strike Team Shovelling: 2018 Sentinel Pass deep burial. Photo by Tom Banfield.
This three-part series by BCA ambassador Jordy Shepherd provides a detailed overview of Strike Team Shovelling, which the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) started teaching in the past couple of years in all CAA AvSAR courses. In part 1 of the series, we demonstrate the best Strike Team Shovelling positioning and rotations. In part 2 of the series, we present how to fine-tune the final stages of avalanche excavation once you reach the victim. In part 3 of our Strike Team Shovelling series, we show how to use the Diamond Method in the event of a deep burial, when the avalanche victim is buried deeper than your avalanche probe.
Strike Team Shovelling works very well if you're able to get an avalanche probe strike on the buried victim. But what do you do in the case of deep burials where the subject is buried deeper than the length of your avalanche probe? This was the case with an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies in the Spring of 2018 (see photo above), in which a skier was buried 4 meters (13+ feet) below the surface and survived. Burials deeper than your avalanche probe are not common and victims buried deeper than two meters rarely survive but if a deep burial occurs, you should be practiced in a technique that will result in the greatest chance of survival.
It's a good idea to carry an avalanche probe that is at least 300cm in length. If you choose to carry a shorter probe, recognize the limitations of not being able to get a probe strike in deep burial situations, and that you will need to dig down in order to get a probe strike. The Diamond Method shown below will help you determine the best use of your Strike Team Shovelling resources in a deep burial situation.
Deep Burials: If the subject is buried too deep to get a probe strike
If the victim is buried too deep to get a probe strike, place shovelers downslope approximately half the distance of the estimated burial depth (as indicated on your initial transceiver fine search). Place a probe or ski pole as a marker for your shovellers to begin excavating.
The Diamond Method
Identify that it is a deep enough burial to require using this deep burial search technique (the subject is buried deeper than your probe length) with the searching avalanche transceiver held horizontally.
- Stay in normal Search mode if you have a Tracker or any other digital-only transceiver. Switch to Mode 2 (automatic backup mode) if you have a digital/analog transceiver, such as a Mammut Barryvox.
- If shovellers are available, place a probe as a marker for the excavation, located approximately one-half of the lowest burial depth downslope from the approximate point with the lowest burial depth indication, so as not to interfere with the fine searching and probing. Have the shovellers begin Strike Team Shovelling. Example: if the lowest number found in the initial fine search is four meters deep, place a probe two meters downslope from the approximate area where the transceiver searcher has that four-meter indication.
- Flag the boundary in all four directions where the numbers begin to rise noticeably (about 1m change from lowest numbers).
- Estimate as precisely as possible the center point of this diamond.
- This point will be (approximately) above the buried subject, perpendicular to the slope surface.
- Mark the center point of the four points of the diamond.
- Reposition the shovellers approximately 2 meters upslope of the center of the diamond, by placing a marker probe at that upslope point.
- Use Strike Team Shovelling to shovel a corridor through the center point of the diamond, shoveling a corridor through the center of your diamond. This corridor should be about two meters wide as they shovel through where the center of the diamond was located. About every meter you shovel down, do a quick fine search in the excavation corridor to ensure you're shoveling in the right area. Adjust the shoveling corridor to one side or the other as indicated by your fine searches.
- Shovel until you are within probe striking distance.
- Now do another fine search at the bottom of the excavation corridor. Probe until you get a strike and then reposition the shovellers again, with the lead shoveller at the probe strike. Shovel until you reach the subject.
Jordy simulates a five-meter deep burial by attaching a transmit beacon to the top of a long pole. Note how he has done a secondary, detailed fine search to define four points where the distance readings on his transceiver jump significantly. The most likely burial area is at the center of this diamond. If he had shovelers available, they'd be digging just downhill as he bracketed out these points with his transceiver. Eventually, the excavation corridor would move up to the center of the diamond. Photo by Bruce Edgerly. Location: Canmore, AB.
If you do not have enough shovellers for the burial depth and slope
(See Strike Team Shovelling Method Part 1 for more info.)
This is very likely in companion rescues involving small groups. If you are alone, then immediately attempt to define the lowest distance reading using the Diamond Method. The difference is that nobody will be shoveling downhill of you. In the area around the lowest distance reading, excavate a corridor two meters wide and about two meters upslope and downslope of the lowest reading. Perform a fine search with your transceiver each time you excavate one additional meter in depth. Once you get a probe strike, start excavating at about half the burial depth downhill, and shovel down and forward toward the probe tip.
If you have a partner or two, then while you're bracketing the lowest distance reading with the Diamond Method and shoveling a corridor as above they can start shoveling downhill at about half the lowest distance reading. Once you get a probe strike, then they'll be in the right position for you to perform effective Strike Team Shovelling. Don't stop till you get to their airway!
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: www.PeakAlpine.comwww.CanmoreRealEstate.ca.
Jordy enjoys guiding and instructing clients to achieve their personal best, with a focus on the safety and enjoyment of the mountains.