My headline may seem a bit provocative. Of course practicing your companion rescue skills is a good, indeed a neccessary thing you say! You'll be happy top know that I agree. Just having learned companion rescue is not enough. These skills need to be practiced with regularity if you want them to be really effective when it matters.
But there are a lot of ways to practice these skills and some are much better than others in making you effective should you ever have to use these skills for real. And goodness knows you want to be good at this should you ever have to use it for real (I speak from experience on this one).
The bad version of practice is the one where someone hides a transceiver a few centimeters under the snow withing range of the person searching. The person doing the search turns their transceiver to receive, gets a signal immediately and then quickly hones in on the barely buried transceiver and has no trouble at all finding it thus assuming that they've got the skillls dialed.
But what really has the person in the above example practiced? They turned one transceiver from sending to receiving and they did just the easieast part of a transciever search (the secondary or coarse search). Really they practiced two of the easiest skills and nothing else.
Real companion rescue is a much more complex animal than just a coarse transceiver search. It typically involves groups of people who have to communicate effectively and organize themselves to be effective. It requires that someone takes charge and delegates tasks. It is critical that a concious deicision is made about whether to initiate a rescue or not (remember Sparwood?). It includes assessing available information such as a last seen point and visual clues. it involves having do a primary (singnal) search before you even get a signal from a buried transceiver. It requires further coordination and communication to make sure that resources are applied as efficiently as possible (when a fine search with a transceiver is complete is there an assembled probe at hand or did that get overlooked?). And good practice involves real probing for real objects that are buried at realistic depths in the snow. FInally, complete rescue practice involves practicing digging because there are a whole set of skills and practice associated with this that have the potential to dramatically change the outcomes of a real rescue.
So good practice is much more than a short transceiver search. The best practice involves groups of people enacting realistic scenarios that have as much detail designed into them as possible so that you give yourself as many chances as possible to make mistakes which become fantastic learning opportunities. You may not be surprised to hear that these learning opportunities more often than not, are not around transceiver skills. More likley they will be lessons in things like leadership, group management, communication, allocation of resources, fine search technique, probing and shoveling.
Here are some tips for making really good companion rescue practices:
1) Always set up realistic scenariios and force yourself to enact them from start to finish following all of the steps through.
2) Practice carrying a companion rescue reference card and make it part of your rescue response to pull out that card and use it as your guide through the entire rescue.
3) If you have enough people, include actors playing distressed, non buried victims in your scenarios. It doesn't take an acadamey performance to quickly amp up the urgency and tension creating yet more learing opportunities.
4) Don't skip over important steps like deciding if it is safe to even initiate a rescue and checking for visual clues.
5) Have more than one "victim" buried. The goal here is not neccessarily to set up complex multible burial transceiver searches, in fact these are quite rare in recreational acccidents. Rather the goal is to stretch the resources of the searchers so that they have to get smart about how they allocate their resources (poeple). So bury the transceivers far apart to keep the transceiver searching simple but still stretching resources.
6) Have everyone travelling on their normal mode of transport with all their rescue gear int thier pack on their back (no pre assembled shovels and probes!)
7) Bury transciers deep (at least a metre) so that fine transceiver search, probing and shoveling are all real. Bury inside objects that feel like people (packs work well)
8) Have well structured debrief sessions after each scenario to maximize the learning.
I hope that this information is of value and that if you are stoked to get out into the snow that we've finally received you are asking yourself "are my companion rescue skills up to scratch" and are planning some good practice with some friends very soon.
See you out there,
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides.
AST Plus: Applying Your Avalanche Skills Training
We get a lot of really positive feedback about our Avalanche Skills Training courses. The testimonials on our web site I think attest to that. Common themes we see are things like “a ton of information” and “an amazing amount of knowledge”.
Indeed we make a real effort on our courses to get in as much as we can in the time that we have, to really give our students good value and to send them away feeling that the course was a really worthwhile experience. And though I think that we do a good job of organizing all of that information in a way that it feels manageable and complete, there is no doubt that on these courses we are opening up an area of knowledge that is highly complex and that is really just the beginning of a long learning journey.
Given these complexities it is not a surprise that a lot of the feedback we get from students suggests that just one more day added on to these courses on which we apply all that new knowledge could be a really good thing. Enter the AST Plus.
As I have suggested above, the AST Plus idea was really generated by our students. The consensus amongst many has been that they would love to have a chance to apply the knowledge from their avalanche skills training in a day of back country touring, with an instructor present to help walk them through this first experience of using the knowledge.
So here is how it works: We set you up with a super experienced guide. As with all our avalanche skills trainings, this person is not just an avalanche forecaster or an avalanche educator. All our instructors well exceed the Canadian Avalanche Centre standard for instructors or indeed the standards that most AST providers meet. Our instructors are also people who have spent many years making many real decisions in a lot of avalanche terrain. Think of someone who has spent many winters guiding millions of vertical feet at heli skiing operations and you start to get the picture. But this person is not going to “guide” you down the slopes as they do when they are guiding heli skiing. Rather they are going to “guide” you through a day of applied avalanche risk management where you make the decisions with them acting as the facilitator. It starts with a solid trip planning session where the instructor introduces you to the most valuable resources and how to use them as you plan a day using these and the skills you have learned on the avalanche skills training. Then it’s off to the mountains to implement your plan for the day. Again the students are the leaders with the guide using “teachable moments” to maximize the learning you get from your experiences in the field. You’ll finish the day with a well structured debrief that, like everything else you have done this day, acts as a template for how you will debrief your own trips in future to maximize your learning from each day to accelerate you along the path to becoming a competent decision maker in avalanche terrain.
AST Plus is well suited to anyone who has done the AST1 course or has equivalent training or experience. It’s also suitable for people who have done the AST2 or have equivalent training or experience. In fact having people of varying experience levels or training on the same touring day together mimics exactly what happens on real tours with real people. They are never the same and those differences become an important part of the dynamics of the decision making process. We see this as making for a valuable learning environment because it is real.
We’ve got an AST Plus with a couple of spots open on 11 January at Mount Washington. We've also got two days of AST Plus running at Mount Cain 15 and 16 February. We’ll be posting more dates soon. If you have a particular date in mind to do this training with us drop us a line and we’ll make that one of the dates on offer. Here is the link to the page to sign up for AST Plus: http://www.islandalpineguides.com/trips/82
We’ve also got some spots open on AST1 and AST2 courses which are coming up soon and are either close to full or filling quickly:
21/22 December AST1 Mount Washington
20-23 December AST2 Mount Cain
28/29 December AST1 Mount Cain
4/5 January AST1 Mount Washington
11/12 and 18/19 AST2 Mount Washington
18/19 January AST1 Mount Washington
1-4 February AST2 Mount Cain
We’ve also got a lot of very cool ski and snowboard touring opportunities for you this winter including Mount Washington and Mount Cain Backcountry Tours, Intro to Touring Weekends and Helicopter Accessed Tours. Check out our web site for details on these and many more trips and if there are not dates up there yet that suit you, get in touch to suggest some dates. We’ll write more later about some of these great trips and courses.
I saw the new Sherpas Cinema release “Into the Mind” last night. Perfectly timed to get me all jacked up for skiing this winter! I could make this blog a critique of the movie but I won’t do that. The critic in me can find plenty to criticize in this effort but I chose to suspend my critical side and just sit back and enjoy it .... and I did ..... until about an hour or so in when I thought “fourty five minutes would have been enough” and then it went on for another half hour. But I did say I was not going to write a critique right?!
Much of that film was shot at Bella Coola with Bella Coola Heli Sports. As some of my readers may know, one of the many hats that I wear in the winter is as the Operations Manager and Lead Guide at Bella Coola Heli Sports Pantheon Operations. It’s a real treat to work around the highest peak in BC (Mount Waddington) in a massive tract of untouched mountain wilderness doing first descents with just eight guests a week.
But seeing those peaks around Bella Coola brought me back to the fun I had last spring working in that exact area with Bella Coola Helisports “Big Mountain Challenge”. In fact We were working just around the corner from the spot that forms the central story line in the movie (the climb up and ski down). Check out the video of one of our guests having their own steep skiing movie experience on this really rad program. I have to admit I had a lot of fun guiding on that program. If any of you are interested in joining us at Bella Coola or Pantheon do get in touch and we can hook you up!
We’ve got lots of exciting stuff happening this winter here on the Island and in the Coast Mountains. We’ll continue to run the best avalanche safety training courses on the island (indeed they would stack up against the best anywhere in our view). If early volume of registrations and inquiries is any indication I am sure we are going to be busier than ever with these courses this winter.
We’ll also continue to offer our Life After AST program, The Back Country Performance program, the Intro to Winter Mountain Travel, the Advanced Island Winter Mountain Skills, as well as the Spearhead Traverse, the Glacier Skiing course and Lodge Based Ski Touring all in the Coast Range. These are just a few highlights. Cruise around our web site and you’ll see a lot more options for your winter fun and learning.
One thing we are excited about is our cooperation with Mount Washington this year to offer guided backcountry skiing at the mountain. Whereas we have offered full day trips into the Washington backcountry in the past, what’s new this year is that we are offering a half day introductory backcountry experience. We are sure that the lower level of commitment, the shorter time frame and the low cost will all make this an appealing option for those wanting to check out the backcountry with a qualified guide. Check it out here or register with the Mount Washington Snow School.
Put some old skis on that bonfire for Ular and get stoked to ride!
Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides
I have been a little absent from my blog the last few months. Not up to the mark really but it has been a busy summer for us. We have seen some interesting trends in the things that we are doing include a very definitive shift for us from doing more introduction to rock climbing courses to doing more learn to lead courses. I’ve talked to colleagues in Squamish and elsewhere and it seems that they are experiencing the same trend. Is it because more people are starting their climbing careers indoors and coming out of the gym with belaying and climbing skills and wanting to lead on rock as soon as they get outside? Is it that lots of people have done our intro to rock courses and have top roped enough that they are ready to make the next step to leading? I think the answer to both is yes and I have to say that it is very satisfying to be helping people to reach their goals and to send them off into the realm of leading on the “sharp end” of the rope in a consistent and solid manner.
While we’ve run a ton of learn to lead courses this summer and last, the thing that we are running very little of is rock rescue courses. Which has me asking myself “what’s up with rock rescue?”. I just don’t get it. I know that there are lots of people out there climbing multi pitch rock routes that simply do not have the skills to manage a problem should it arise. All you have to do is imagine having your partner on belay on a multi pitch route when some trouble befalls them. They are hit by rock fall, they take a big fall themselves and are hurt. Once they are hanging on your belay your hands are occupied. Your belay is fully loaded and if you can not free those hands up by escaping the belay you are hooped before you start! And even if you can escape the belay somehow can you do it safely without compromising your safety or your victims? And then what? How do you safely change that belay to a lower? Or a raise? Or how do you get from your anchor to your victim to help them? And then what will you do? All of these are very real questions and as long as nothing goes wrong when you are climbing it’s all well and good. But I am afraid that I am pretty sure that there are way more people out there that could end up in this situation than there are people out there with the skills to manage it.
So why do we not have more people signing up for rock rescue courses? Is it the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome? Is it that people think “oh I would manage it somehow”? Is it that they have not even really considered the problem? I think it could be any of the above and more. The fact is that rescue systems are complex and need good instruction and regular practice to remain strong enough to be of use when you need them. I really hope that our trend toward more learn to lead courses will continue to evolve and morph into an increase in interest in rock rescue courses. I know from experience that when people take these courses there is an incredible sense of satisfaction that comes from learning these skills as well as a retrospective view that says “am I ever glad I did not need these before learning them!”.
Have a great remainder to the summer and get ready to ride the pow before too long!
I’m just back from continuing professional development sessions at the International Federation of Mountain Guides meetings in Whistler. What we did in one of these sessions was to look at a number of case studies of past accidents to see what we could learn from them.
What I came away from these sessions with, aside from the usual excellent lessons, were some more general thoughts and reminders about how important it is to look back and learn. It is one thing to say that we will learn from our "mistakes" and another to take a concerted and systematic approach to that learning. Here are some thoughts on that that I would like to share with you.
Objectivity: Whenever we look back at accidents or incidents as much as possible it is important that we do our best to stand back from the situation and try to assess it objectively. This means identifying the biases that we come to the situation with (a big one to deal with here is often our own ego and the desire to be “right”) and to try to assess the events as much as possible as an unbiased third party observer might.
Acknowledgement of emotions: To achieve the kind of objectivity that we are aiming for as described above I think we first need to acknowledge all of the emotions that come along with accidents and incidents and to accept these as being completely normal responses. Shame and guilt are common emotions associated with incidents and accidents particularly if we were in a leadership role when something went wrong. Acknowledging and allowing ourselves to experience these emotions is a very important first step allowing us to then look at the situation more objectively and allowing earning to happen.
Withholding blame: To allow ourselves and others to learn we have to be willing to suspend the desire to place blame on others or on ourselves. Blaming is a convenient short cut in assessing accidents but it limits our ability to deeply examine the events that lead to accidents and to learn from them.
Looking for positive outcomes: This has to be the fundamental purpose of our investigations, to learn and to get better.
I have a nine year old son and you may not be surprised to know that I encourage him to engage risk. I do so because I believe that we can not learn to become solid decision makers around risk if we do not explore risk and learn where “the lines are” around risk by “feeling the edges of them”. Toward this end when my little boy wants to blame himself when things go wrong I try to remind him: “What you did was not a mistake if you learn from it so that you can do things differently next time”. Rather than “mistakes” I prefer to refer to his explorations as “learning opportunities”.
Philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Perhaps a simpler version for us as risk takers and lovers of the mountain environment could be “Learn from your experiences”.
Enjoy the mountains this spring, enjoy the risk, manage it and learn from it.