Knocking off the Rust Part 2

In my last post, we discussed how to thoroughly check your rescue gear to ensure it is operating properly and ready to go for the upcoming season.  Now we will discuss the other things you can or should do to prep for the season.


 By raise of hands, how many of you out there practice your beacon skills on a regular basis?  C’mon be honest, the only people you are cheating here are your and your partners.  Modern beacons have done their very best the last few years to simplify the search process and allow us, the end user, to become less diligent about how often and how well we practice.  I’m as guilty as the next guy, since I left ski patrolling regular practice has become less automatic and more something I need to remind myself about.    So, how do you practice good beacon skills before the snow flies?   My personal opinion is that solid skills and an understanding of your personal beacon are the foundation of efficient searching in complex situations, therefore, there really is no reason to start out with a complicated, overlapping, multi signal drill.  Go to the local park, I like a soccer field because there are few if any obstacles to trip on, and set a transmitting beacon at one end.   Move beyond the range of the beacon and starting with a good signal search, follow the signal without ever taking your eyes off your beacon.  This is a great way to fully understand exactly what the sounds and signals your beacon makes mean.  A live search is no time for confusion, the more automatic your search is the better you will perform under pressure.  It this seems too easy or too basic, grab 5-6 paper lunch sacks and set them out with rocks inside, then have your partner “hide” the beacon in a random sack.  Time yourself and your partner; you really should be under two minutes in a drill like this.  Once you feel like the cobwebs are loose and single search scenarios are automatic, move on to doubles or triples, learn the nuances of signal overlap and the challenges of signal marking with more than two signals in a close proximity.  The more you dial it in now, the less time you lose skiing when the snow flies.

So what else can be done to get ready for another season in avalanche country?  How about brushing up on your stability tests?  Remember those dimensions, procedures and scoring?  What about sheer quality, fracture character and friction?  Which tests are appropriate where and when?  What information does each test provide?  A few rules of thumb:

  • Test names
    • ECT – Extended Column Test
    • CT – Compression Test
    • PST – Propagation Saw Test
    • Dimensions
      • ECT – 90cm across slope X 30cm up slope – tap on one end
      • CT – 30cm X 30cm block – tap on top
      • PST – 100cm up slope by 30cm across slope – unless weak layer is deeper than 100cm!
      • Compression tests – ECT and CT use the same tapping progressions:
        • 1-10 from the wrist
        • 11-20 from the elbow
        • 21-30 from the shoulder
        • PST is only effective in an easy to identify weak layer
        • Watch for “stops”, “pops” and “drops”! Pops and Drops are red flags
          • Stop – layer fails but fails to slide out or drop noticeably
          • Pop – slab “pops” out into your lap
          • Drop – slab “drops” vertically on a weak layer, may or may not pop out as well


One great resource for this info is “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper, while you’re reading it brush up on the terrain and weather sections.  It’s kind of like a personal refresher course.  Also check out the snow and avalanche library at  and the ISSW database here – -more info than even the most die hard snow geek can digest in one sitting.   While you’re at the computer, double check all your weather and avalanche links – sometimes as agencies update or modify things the url gets changed, it’s frustrating on a powder morning to be searching for the snow report from a dead link!

And finally, as the snow begins to fall and pile up on the upper reaches of our mountains, pay attention!!  Season history is one of the most important factors in my decision to ascend or descend a particular slope, and the season history begins with the first snowfall that accumulates on the ground, so I start to ask myself and pay attention to the following.  Where is it accumulating?  Where is it staying around as we move in and out of high pressure?  What is happening to the snow that is sticking around?  Thin snowpacks tend to be weak snowpacks so that early season snow may be January’s weak spot once buried.  Knowing where the weak snow is now can help me properly manage those areas later on.   Remember to ask yourself, how is today’s weather affecting future avalanche conditions?

So now all there is to do is watch ski porn, brush up on your rescue skills, entertain some light reading and pray for snow.  Here’s to a deep, safe 2013-2014 season.

wolverineBy Jake Hutchinson


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