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Complex avalanche rescue situations with Manuel Genswein and Lauegi.

This week we’ve had a luxury visit in the Val d’Aran. Baqueira-Beret together with Lauegi, the center for avalanche forecasting on the Val d’Aran have organised an advanced rescue seminar with Manuel Genswein, an eminence in the field and representative of . The mission of Mountain Safety is to gather information and defining protocols under a scientific approach for optimizing avalanche situations.

The seminar has been focused on rescue, especially on complex rescue situations. I got surprised by the technicality of it’s methodology. In fact, I took my last avalanche course two years ago but it seems it was already outdated!

The first days of the seminar were focused on instructing the heavyweights of the valley in charge of coordinating rescue and training, all the way from Lauegi, mountain guides, staff from the safety patrol of Baqueira-Beret, firefighters and forest patrolers. The following days were focused on sharing this knowledge amongst the next level of the pyramid, all the way from group leaders, advance users, ski instructors, firefighters, staff from the ski patrol, and of course, Onthebelay.


Our first day was all about the theory. Manuel Genswein himself, shared the knowledge through a rigorous and visual slideshow. Then, the second day we went to the field. Through five different workshops we put to test our learnt techniques.


We started warming up and gaining confidence with simple rescue situations: one burial not deeper than 2m.  Simple situations are never that simple and need to be well done, so we practised the best ways. The probing technique was slightly improved from the last course I took a few years ago, as well as the shovelling process on surface burials not deeper than half a meter. Later we went for multiple victim scenario with DVA. We practiced the flaging function on DVAs with such mode, and then we practised the micro-striping technique for when flaging fails to work or when we don’t have a flagging DVA.

From this first workshops we learn the value of having a good DVA and to know it well. Basically the conclusion is that three antennas and flagging function should be our basic requirements. Why? A multi burial scenario is always going to be complex. In our workshops, when using the flagging function and been a bit careful, we were able to solve most situations with relative ease. However, without such mode, things were soon becoming complex and slow. In cases with three victims we were not always able to find all three on the time of the exercise.The micro stripping technique always needs to be learnt and practised, you never know if your flagging device is going to fail, but you should never count with it as plan A.

Let’s come back to the graphic crossing probabilities of survival and exposition time. The first 15 minutes are key for asphyxia, especially under a non permeable snow layer. In this phase, every two or three minutes lost represents a decrease in the chances of survival of 8 to 10%. If we are tracing the DVAs without a flagging mode for fifteen minutes instead of five, then we will not be able to do a lot for our buried friends.

Our next workshop was all about shoveling. Here things have also been modified. In my last avalanche course we still practised the figure V shovelling technique. Well, now this technique has been outdated by the conveyor belt. I don’t have the right skills neither the knowledge for instructing properly on it, but basically we seek making an industrial work line for making a transversal cut to the slope and assisting the victim from the side, like if we would pull it out from a drawer. This technique improves the timings respecting the V structure. Everyone works hard all the time, while on the V the ones on the front have significantly more job than the ones on the back. In case of hardened snow, we learnt a new way, also inspired from a work chain, to cut the blocks of ice like a team optimizing significantly the timings and efforts.

For burials over three meters deep,  it’s not possible to probe the victim neither to know the exact location; there is a technique that combines the conveyor belt and the refined search method as soon as we start to go further down and make steps. It is a very smart technique, but you should always consider that above two meters and a half deep, the chances of survival are extremely low.


Another lesson learn in this chapter is that plastic shovels do not work on a situation with hard snow and will most likely break. On the other hand a proper shovel with an extendable shaft will significantly improve the rescue timing. Remember one more time that three minutes equal 10% survival chances.

The last updated techniques that we practised was about coordinated probing for tracing victims without a DVA. What did we learnt? Basically when not carrying a DVA, even on low depths, we don’t really stand a chance of making it alive. We also learnt that most of the probes that we average users carry do not really work for probing. Those typical thin probes around 2,4m or less with a rope structure as core were not really achieving to probe further than one meter on semi hard snow and were all the time getting stuck or getting dismantled. If we would have tried to follow the pace and intensity of the firefighter team with their rescue probes, we would have most likely broke ours. Conclusion: those light probes will work on an easy burial scenario with the victim close to one meter, but just imagine for a second having your friend two meters deep and breaking your probe on the fourth try. If you don’t want to go through that, then you should look for at least a three meters probe with a more robust body and a metal string as core.

The last and final workshop was a group practise on a scenario with five buried victims. Some of them with a DVA, some without, some buried more superficially, some at moderate depths and some very deep.

The key here was not only to apply all the previous knowledge but to take good decisions as a rescue group: to choose a leader, decision making under stress, coordinate our strengths and skills…I must underline that such soft skills and its coordination are the most difficult part to manage on a rescue. Who will be the leader? will the leader behave as so till the end and control all the situations? After some time, with larger groups it’s easy to lose focus and delegate on the leader and the group the management of the situation, when this starts to spread on the group, we can miss a lot. Sometimes we all want to dive in our DVA, but perhaps due to the terrain we don’t need more than one or two persons doing that task. At the same time, if we are all looking at our DVA we may miss visual signs like skis, poles or a body part sticking out. We also have to learn to take difficult decisions; if we trace someone but is buried three meters deep, and we know there are more potential victims, then we should value the decision of momentarily abandoning this person to seek for others with greater chances of survival.

No doubt the coordination will be the most difficult, especially on complex scenarios. If you tend to roll with the same group, you should practice regularly for knowing who is a good leader, who is more skilled and know better his DVA, who has better eyesight, who is stronger and more skilled shovelling….

One final note. As we’ve been talking lately about AIRBAG backpacks, Manuel Genswein highlighted it’s real effectivity for preventing burial situations or limiting the depth of the burial with data extracted from real cases and simulations.

As you can see there is always work to do in what concerns avalanche safety and rescue. We should keep both us and our gear updated. This time, we have focused on rescue, but our priority should be on prevention. We never know too much in that field. If you are interested in learning this latest skills, now we have great trainers in the Val d’Aran completely updated and certified for sharing such knowledge.

I would like to thank the great work of the team of Lauegi, the commitment of Baqueira-Beret and the Conselh d’Aran in this field and to all the professionals that were involved in this seminar. It was a pleasure to see the work and determination of Manuel Genswein and all the work behind

Safe riding for everyone!

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