This article was first published in the Island Bushwhacker annual. It was subsequently published in edited form in the Gazette, the quarterly newsletter of the Alpine Club of Canada. Later that year it was published in full form the in the Canadian Alpine Journal. It has also appeared on the web site of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC.
Avalanches scare me! Fortunately (for me) I have not yet been buried
in one. This may be attributed to experience, knowledge, luck, the fact
that I don’t get out much in the winter, and the fact that I almost
never ski in the interior, (and consequently have no knowledge of a substance
called deep powder snow). The relative importance of these five factors
is open to debate, but likely the last three are right up there. I have
taken a couple of avalanche safety courses, but I am admittedly somewhat
complacent and unpracticed in the use of avalanche transceivers and in
some other avalanche safety procedures. With that as an introduction I
hope you will manage to remain seated and calm while I pull your chain
a little on this subject.
On the Canadian Avalanche Association web site, on the pages called Accidents Factors, under the heading of Safety Measures, there appears the following true statement: “ Other safety measures such as wearing transceivers or removing ski-pole straps tend to reduce the consequences of being caught.” Unfortunately it seems to me that there are many winter recreationists who have confused the real purpose of avalanche transceivers (as a modest search and rescue advantage in a small percentage of avalanche incidents), with a false purpose, namely as a way to reduce the likelihood of being caught in an avalanche. This is my second big issue with transceivers. It seems obvious, but I think it needs saying (again). Wearing a transceiver does NOT decrease your chances of being caught in an avalanche. In fact if you think it does – that is, if you would go somewhere with a transceiver that you would not go without one – then it actually increases your chances of becoming an avalanche victim. Let me rephrase that. If you would ski or climb somewhere while wearing an avalanche transceiver that you wouldn’t go if you were not wearing one then you are stupid (unless, I guess, your policy is to never go out without one. Think carefully about this.)
My argument is, then, that transceivers confer only a modest search and rescue advantage in a small percentage of avalanche incidents, and it is therefore not irresponsible for informed parties to go into the snowy mountains without these devices. This conclusion will be unacceptable, perhaps reasonably, to commercial operators and to most clubs, but if this heretical article fosters a discussion that leads to a more realistic understanding of risk, then we will all be the better off.
As a final point (Actually there is another one, but I’ll spare you.) I’d like to comment on avalanche probes. Again we are talking about a device that will not reduce your chances of getting caught in an avalanche. It is a single-use pound of metal that costs about half the exhaust-system replacement that my car could use right now. Moreover, as the CAA web site shows, only about 10% of avalanche victims completely buried alive are found by this method, fewer than are found either by surface clues or by last seen point. Put another way, your powers of observation alone are weightless and worth about 2.5 times as much as an avalanche probe for locating a buried victim alive. Again it is scarcely to be wondered at that so few people choose to carry a probe.
So, if this devil’s advocate has to come up with a conclusion it is this. Let’s learn to understand risk better. Let’s get a sense of perspective about what’s really important, and let’s concentrate more on safe travel. (I hope I never have to eat these words.)