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Avalanche Search and Rescue

Survivors at the avalanche site organize into the first rescue team and immediately start rescue operations. If any indication of the location of the victim is found, random probing starts in that vicinity. The tip and edges of the slide are also likely areas to search. A human body is bulky and is apt to be thrown toward the surface or the sides.

General Procedures

Establish from witnesses where the victim was located just before the avalanche to determine the point where the victim disappeared—the "last seen" point. Using this and any other information, establish a probable victim trajectory line leading to high priority search areas. Make a quick but systematic check of the slide area and the deposition area, and mark all clues. Look for skis, poles, ice axes, packs, gloves, hats, goggles, boots, or any other article the person may have been carrying—it might still be attached to the victim.

  • Organize initial searchers and probers. If using avalanche beacons, immediately select personnel to begin a beacon search. Ensure all other beacons are turned off or to receive to eliminate erroneous signals. All personnel should have a shovel or other tool for digging or, if enough personnel are available, a digger can be standing by to assist when needed. If the initial search reveals items from the victim, make an initial probe search in that area. This probing should take only a few seconds.
  • Make a coarse probe of all likely areas of burial, and repeat it as long as a live rescue remains possible. Resort to the fine probe only when the possibility of a live rescue is highly improbable. Unless otherwise indicated, start the coarse probe at the deposition area.

Establishing the Victim's Most Probably Location

In many respects, a moving avalanche resembles a liquid. A human body, with a higher density than the flowing snow, would be expected to sink deeper and deeper into the avalanche; however, several factors influence the body's location. Turbulence, terrain, and the victim's own efforts to extricate himself all interact to determine the final burial position. Study of a large number of case histories leads to the following conclusions.

  • The majority of buried victims are carried to the place of greatest deposition, usually the toe of the slide.
  • If two points of the victim's trajectory can be established, a high probability exists that the victim will be near the downhill flow line passing through these two points.
  • Any terrain features that catch and hold avalanche debris are also apt to catch a victim.
  • If an avalanche follows a wandering gully, all debris deposit areas are likely burial spots. The likelihood of a victim being buried in a particular bend is proportional to the amount of debris deposited there.
  • Vegetation, rocks, and other obstacles act as snares. The victim tends to be retained above the obstacle. An obstacle may simply delay the victim's motion, leading to final burial down flow from the obstacle.
  • Maximum speed of the flowing snow occurs at the avalanche center. Friction reduces flow velocity along the edges. The closer the victim's trajectory is to the center of the slide, the greater will be his burial depth.
  • Efforts of the victim to extricate himself by vigorous motion and "swimming" definitely minimize burial depth. Conversely, the limp body of an unconscious victim is likely to be buried deeply.
  • An occasional exception to the above is emphasized. The victim may not be buried but may have been hurled away from the avalanche by wind blast. In the case of large and violent avalanches, a search of the surrounding terrain is advisable. Victims have been located in tree tops outside the slide area.

Use of avalanche transceivers is the most efficient method of searching for an avalanche victim, but only if the victim is wearing an active transceiver. Many models of transceivers are available, each with its own manufacturer's instructions for proper use and care. All currently available transceivers are compatible, although they may operate differently in the search mode.

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