A Devil’s Advocate Stirs the Pot
January 2000
(footnotes are important)

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.
I am interested in risk and its evaluation. It is perhaps worth re-naming the separation of real risk from perceived risk as the separation of real safety from perceived safety. We also need a sense of perspective. There are, on average, about 10-12 avalanche fatalities in Canada per year, of which about half are back-country skiers. Driving to and from our outings almost certainly is more dangerous.
However, my first problem with avalanche transceivers is not about risk, it is about their cost. They are hideously overpriced, currently fetching a dollar figure about equivalent to the value of my (admittedly ‘low-end’) car. (Nov. 2002. I still have the same car.) Yet I cannot help but wonder whether they contain less than twenty dollars worth of parts. The cult of avalanche safety keeps us buying them unquestioningly (yes, I own one), but I keep hoping that someday somebody will break the price bubble with the truth. (OK, I now know most of the pricing story on this. 2002)
Before I get to my second and more important complaint I’d like to offer a ‘creative’ interpretation of some numbers from the web site of the Canadian Avalanche Association.(January 2000) According to the Trends and Patterns in Avalanche Accidents pages, our chances of surviving an avalanche are about 86%. Put another way, our chances of dying if we get caught in an avalanche are about 14%. One data set suggests that about one third of avalanche deaths are caused by trauma rather than asphyxiation, so our chances of being killed by asphyxiation in an avalanche, if we are caught, are only about two thirds of 14%, which is 10% or less. It is these cases that, it seems to me, are the proper focus of transceiver usage. In one data set spanning 12 years it was found that the proportion of completely buried persons found alive by the use of transceivers was 42% (1) , the others being found by other means. A little bit of ‘interpretation’ now has us down to this, namely that an avalanche transceiver is going to be of real value in only about 4% (2) of the cases in which people are caught in avalanches.
Another data analysis (Avalanche News # 42) tells us that there were 73 people either killed or completely buried by avalanches in Canada between 1986 and 1993. Thirteen percent of the 32 victims without transceivers survived, while 32% of the 41 victims with transceivers survived. There is a lot of information missing here, and those killed by trauma have not been factored out, but by these data it looks as though wearing a transceiver increases our survival chances by only about 20%.
Admittedly, about 75% of recreational avalanche victims (i.e. deaths) in a larger different sample were not wearing transceivers. Also, the numbers would probably improve a bit if all wearers of transceivers were proficient users. But when the situation is viewed in the (skewed ?) light of the above paragraphs one can hardly wonder at or even condemn the low usage of these devices.

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.)

Sandy Briggs

1. It is not stated whether all victims in the data set were actually wearing transceivers, perhaps unlikely.
2. This is 42% of 10%.