1. Play the field
While you could even practice a beacon search in a field at home, you can’t beat a mountain with real snow to simulate the difficult terrain of a real avalanche emergency rescue. Best of all, practice in resort with those you’ll be riding with to build good teamwork and familiarise yourself with using all your gear on the mountain. All you need is a snowfield about the size of a football field without any major powerlines running over it, and at least two avalanche beacons…
2. Find a signal
Turn all beacons to transmit, then get a friend to hide a beacon somewhere in the snowfield over 70m away while you turn your back. When it’s placed, turn around and ensure that every beacon except the one ‘buried’ is turned to ‘receive’, as this is the first thing you would all do after a real avalanche. Start to work your way quickly up the field, methodically zigzagging across its full width (of however wide you want your imaginary avalanche to be). Ensure your ‘switchbacks’ are no more than 20m apart and continue to within no less than 10m of each side of the snowfield. Hold your beacon out in front of you and watch the screen for any sign of a signal.
3. Coarse Search
As soon as you pick a signal up, slow right down and start your coarse search following the arrows on your beacon’s screen. A distance will often be shown, giving you an idea of how much ground you’ve got to cover. If you’re practising multiple burial searching with more than one ‘buried’ beacon, you should head to the closest signal first. Follow the curved path to within 3m of your buried beacon, continuously checking your screen to make sure you’re on the right path.
4. Fine Search
If the general guideline is that you ‘run to Find the Signal’, ‘walk for the Coarse Search’, then the Fine Search is when you start to crawl. Get your beacon right down on the surface of the snow and move it back-and-forth and side-to-side to find the position which gives the strongest signal or shortest distance reading.
If you’re only searching for one burial, or no other beacons come up, then start probing at the lowest distance/strongest signal point, methodically probing in concentric circles around this point, with each probe placement being no more than 25cm apart. When you have found your burial victim with your probe, leave it there for reference.
If you’re practicing a multiple burial search then this is the point at which you suppress the signal of the burial you’ve just found by pressing the ‘Mark/Mask’ button on your beacon, mark the spot for your fellow survivors to start digging, and then continue your Coarse Search for the next burial victim.
Shovelling snow is by far the hardest and most time-consuming part of any avalanche rescue and there are techniques that need to be rehearsed, so don’t just assume you know how to dig. Start digging back up to the victim from about 1.5 times their burial depth as measured by your probe. You should end up with a trench about 2m wide which angles down to the burial victim. If you have more than one digger divide the various digging tasks (chopping, shovelling and raking, for example) between you all and rotate digging positions for maximum efficiency.