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For a non-professional the chance of ever actually having to use your beacon is very small. So the odds of my being in a rescue situation twice should have been almost nil, right? My background in skiing probably has a bit to do with increasing my odds, I was a Junior Ski Patroller growing up and I skied on the Canadian World Cup Freestyle team. Somehow after all that I ended up in the “real” world, living in the flatlands of Minnesota where I grew up having to travel to get to “real” skiing. Somewhere along the line I discovered Helicopters and backcountry skiing and was hooked.
My first trip to the BC backcountry blew my mind, a few years later I discovered Alaska and the Chugach range and I knew I needed to get there as many times as my budget and time would allow. Backcountry skiers are certainly not universally in favor of helicopter assisted access but when you have to jam a pile of skiing into a few short windows a year they are invaluable. I was fortunate to run into some great guides early and had safety and risk management drilled into my head and I knew if the unlikely ever happened I would be ready. I purchased three different beacons, trained with them all and decided the Tracker was the one that gave me the advantage in both single and multiple burials; it was simply the fastest and easiest to use. The other brands became my practice dummies. Practice makes better so before every trip north to the big mountains I practiced at home.
The first ski day of my trip in March of 2003 started like any other, a briefing, nervous excitement about getting out and the scramble that happens when the word comes that ”we are flying today”. The first run was slow to start with the usual pit digging and evaluation taking place. Things looked good and we were the second group down moderate terrain with bluebird skies and great skiing 4000 feet down to the waiting Helicopter where we loaded up and lifted off. The picture perfect day was about to change though, and fast. Somewhere up on the mountain everything had just come unhinged. A slope avalanched over 500 yards away from the slope we had just skied and the shock remotely triggered a slide on the slope that 21 people had just come down, catching a skier who was way on the runout of that slope from behind, covering him like a large carpet unrolling.
We quickly flew to the top of the slope and got into search mode: I can tell you this: NOTHING can compare to that moment. It was like going from zero to 200 mph in a half second- you know time is critical and someone’s clock is ticking down. As we started to search a call came over the radio that a signal had been picked up way below us on the 300 by 400 yard debris pile and we started to descend rapidly to the other searchers below.
Somewhere along the way and well above the others my beacon beeped once. I knew from practice that beacons don’t go beep for nothing and I stopped where I was and began shouting that I had a hit. I moved a bit downhill then back up the slope a bit and got another hit at just over 40 meters and started closing the gap. At 35 meters I was sure I had someone…not knowing at the time that a client well below me had accidentally slipped his older beacon back into transmit and was sending a false signal to the other rescuers near him. I called again that I was on a signal and my guide started back up towards me.
Shortly thereafter I was in pinpoint search mode and knew we had him located. Hurried probing and digging got us to the buried victim in just over 11 minutes from the original call of “avalanche”. As the fresh air reached him his color returned, he was extricated from his hole and flown out to be examined; two hours later he walked out of the hospital without a scratch. One can only say it was not his day: a class III, 400-yard-wide avalanche had simply rolled over him and someone with a Tracker and a bit of experience hit the right spot to find him. Had I not practiced, been familiar and totally confident with my equipment who knows what would have happened. What I do know is the simple operation of my beacon left no doubt in my mind how to react when it went “beep”.

Truth be told even writing about this years later still gets my heart rate up and a bit of a sweat going- who would have thought I would ever need to use my beacon again. Spring of 2009… I am with a very high end group of skiers, former pros, Olympic hopefulls and a few “civilians’ with high end skills. Our target is “ski movie” terrain, the stability is high and we are going to tee it up. Due to the increased risk our hand picked group includes an extra guide for backup. It is simply not an average day of Alaskan skiing and we all know going in that there is an extra dose of risk involved.
Sometime around midday we were tracking new lines off a spine face, it was incredibly steep but not so long that a tumble would be endless… A run that from the top looked like you could spit to the bottom. I was waiting my turn as one of my ski partners rolled over onto the steepest pitch and out of sight. Seconds later our backup guide bolted from the top and then my client radio crackled with “Bob I need you down there now.”
I quickly worked my way down fully expecting carnage of sorts… an injury… as no slide debris had popped out at the bottom. As I rounded the edge of the closest spine there was no sign of an avalanche or a skier and an intact slope. Unseen from above, the skier (a friend of mine) had misjudged the line and taken a huge tumble, collapsing a snow bridge and falling into a Bregshrund in the process, the sluff from above had filled in the hole and all we saw was what looked like an untouched slope except for a few other holes where the Bergshrund had collapsed. Our spotter below had simply seen a cloud of snow…then nothing.
Seeing no skier above ground we switched to search and I got a signal right away 10 meters uphill. I moved up and when I hit the lip of the Bergshrund the Tracker indicated a line right down the center of it; my friend was IN the shrund. The only way to get closer was to crawl into a hole that the collapsing snow had opened. I felt hands on my ankles as I slid in on my belly with the arm holding the Tracker stretched in front of me watching and calling out the numbers as they went down… at -1 meters part of the tunnel fell on my legs pinning me in place, I watched as a probe came down right in front of me…HIT ! I started digging with my hands and seconds later a helmet appeared then as I moved snow off of it- movement!!! Mission accomplished… happy ending.
It would be easy to say we should have done this or that differently and of course you learn from being within a situation such as that. The Bergshrund that seemed to be fully bridged had collapsed from the weight of a skier falling over a 25 foot drop. Certainly not an everyday happening but an unforcasted risk taken on extreme terrain that day. We had good backup and everything went almost textbook rescue wise, but we were also very lucky. I was glad to have a familiar Tracker in my hand when it counted. Confidence is important when someone is in a dark hole and you have to go in, and there’s extra pressure when it’s your friend. Being in extreme places has its risks and sitting here writing this reminds me of that… some of us venture into beautiful places that can turn around and bite you hard before you can even blink. I don’t EVER want to use my rescue gear again and certainly don’t want to sound like a commercial but if I do I want it to be with a Tracker…after those two experiences how could I not.

Kate Thomas November 04, 2013 4 tags (show)

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