Backcountry

This is Why Your Avy Beacon Training isn’t Enough

Practicing more realistic (and tougher) avalanche rescue scenarios could make a huge difference for most recreational backcountry skiers.

“We’re missing three skiers. What are you going to do first?”

Our group of six was standing at the top of a steep bowl at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, geared up to respond to a rescue drill the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol and Mammut team had set up early one morning in January. Patroller Jeff Burke, who was leading the scenario, sent our team down the hill to locate the buried dummies and kickstart a rescue.

We hurried down the hill, following our beacon signals towards the first two targets and then working together to probe and dig out the first two buried “victims” as quickly as we could. The third victim we uncovered was a life-sized dummy buried at least a meter deep. After clearing the airway, two JHMR ski patrollers dragged over a sled with a suction bag so we could package him up and get him off the mountain. The firm snow felt like moving concrete, and it took our whole team to fully uncover and dig out a platform to stabilize the dummy.

The whole ordeal lasted less than 15 minutes, and I was struck by how much more complex and stressful it was than the practice I’d done before. I’ve worked with my beacon dozens of times in a beacon park or while taking an avalanche course, but never had I gone through such a realistic scenario of actually working through a triple burial and digging out a life-sized dummy under rock-hard snow that mimicked avalanche debris.

Doug Workman, local ski guide and Mammut Avalanche Safety Program Manager, says most recreationalists aren’t just practicing too little, but they are practicing in the wrong ways.

“Walking around in a beacon park just isn’t a realistic scenario,” he says. Workman suggests taking the time to set up scenarios that challenge your skills and mimic a real rescue. Getting dialed with the process before it’s too late.

Related: Experienced Backcountry Skiers Most Likely to be Involved in Avalanches, Study Finds

Skiers looking at an avalanche transceiver
Don’t forget to work with your avalanche transceiver early and often. Photo: Amy Jimmerson

The day before, Workman walked us through the advanced functions of the Mammut Barryvox S Beacon, which can be incredibly powerful if used properly. He also taught us how to strategically shovel when digging out a victim, working together in a “V” shape to move snow efficiently while trading out at the front to stave off exhaustion.

Much of this may sound obvious, but none of these techniques are intuitive by nature, and they require consistent practice throughout the season.

With avalanche accidents on the rise and more and more skiers headed into the backcountry for the first time, now is the time to invest in avalanche safety—and Mammut believes that’s more than just buying a beacon, shovel, and probe.

The Swiss company has put an increasingly large emphasis on education because, by selling backcountry gear, they’re encouraging more and more people to head into the backcountry. “We feel it’s our responsibility to help skiers and riders know how to use the products we’re putting out there,” said Mammut’s Maddie Petry after the rescue drill at JHMR. “That’s the direction we should be going as an industry.”

Watch: How to Backcountry Ski Successfully

a team packages a dummy in an avalanche scenario
Know how to package an injured person in the backcountry. It could be the difference between life and death. Photo: Amy Jimmerson

Mammut’s “Confidently Go” series features discussions online led by Workman, where he interviews snow safety experts, guides, and other professionals to help provide useful tidbits of information for backcountry travelers. Alongside The Lady Alliance, Mammut put on the Virtual Safety Tour in November, a free online clinic for womxn focused on backcountry snow safety. The event featured discussions on gear, decision making, trip planning, and safety in the mountains led by professional guides and Mammut Snow Safety athletes like Elyse Saugstad and Michelle Parker.

“Safety is part of Mammut’s heritage and DNA,” says Ben Eagleton, Mammut North America Marketing Manager. “In North America, we are elevating guides, educators, athletes, and partners who are leaders within the avalanche safety space to make education more accessible.”

As we debriefed the scenario with JHMR Ski Patrol and the Mammut team, we talked about realistic ways to implement what we learned into recreational backcountry skiing. For me, it was a good time to admit that outside of most of the avalanche courses I had taken, I hadn’t devoted enough extra time to honing the rescue skills that could ultimately save a ski partners’ life one day.

In the end, it all boils down to practice and consistency. Getting familiar with your gear, practicing scenarios with your friends, and signing up for a refresher course. You don’t have to spend the next epic storm cycle burying beacons instead of ripping powder, but investing time and energy into safety and education can help us keep doing what we love for seasons to come.