Would Your Riding Partners Be Able to Save Your Life?
As ready as you may be to rescue someone else in the event of an avalanche, a question you must ask yourself is this: How prepared is everyone in your riding group to rescue you?
Of course, many sledders claim that they won’t ride with others who don’t have all of the necessary avalanche rescue equipment. Okay. But we are quickly learning that just having the gear isn’t enough.
Here’s a not-too-farfetched example. When your friends’ wife’s uncle is out for the first time in twenty years and he is handed a transceiver to stick in his pocket for the day, how much help is he going to be in an emergency? Be honest in your evaluation, and don’t think of it from the perspective of: I could find him. Ask yourself this, instead: If I’m buried, will he be able to rescue me?
It is time for a very hard look at who is in your riding group and how capable they may truly be in an emergency.
Would Your Riding Partners Be Able to Save Your Life?
Examine Your Own Capabilities First
Let’s say that you have the knowledge. You have taken an avalanche training course (or two!) and have been in the backcountry for enough years to be as confident as you can be with your decision-making processes.
You watch the weather report, you check the forecast and you crawl over your local avalanche bulletin for new reports of activity. You follow the avalanche forecaster’s reports and danger rating for the day.
You have the gear. Transceiver, probe, shovel and maybe even an avy pack. You have taken the time to learn how to use them, practicing frequently so that you can snap your probe out easily. You know how your transceiver functions work and have the skills to quickly pinpoint a signal location. You have fresh batteries installed and have recently inspected your tools for damage or defect.
You are familiar with the terrain you are heading into and are constantly watching for changing conditions. You are confident in your ability to perform a companion rescue should the worst-case scenario happen on the mountain. You are a leader of your group and they have confidence in you too.
How Capable is Your Riding Buddy?
There are many factors to consider that may make people more or less able when it comes to backcountry emergencies. Some things to keep in mind are:
Does your riding buddy have a transceiver, probe and shovel? Is the shovel and probe carried on their back? Or is it incorrectly stored on their sled?
Is theirs a modern and easy-to-use digital transceiver? Or is it an old analog hand-me-down that should have been tossed in the garbage several seasons ago? Is it kept in good condition? When was the last time a range test was performed with the transceiver?
Is your rider buddy equipped with the skills to use all that gear to save your life? Have they practiced recently, or are their skills rusty? Why not ask them straight-out: When was the last time you practiced a transceiver search?
What about in the case of a multiple-burial scenario. Does the operator know how to use their signal suppression or mark/flag feature effectively? Does their transceiver even have that feature?
Do they know how to efficiently assemble their probe?
Are your companions physically able to exert the effort necessary to perform a quick search (and subsequent rescue)? Can they trudge through several hundred meters of deep snow, without getting winded? Do they have the stamina to excavate a large hole in the snow quickly, without resting?
Do your pals have the first response skills to be able to provide adequate first-aid for any possibly life-threatening injuries you may sustain in a slide?
Can you trust that your riding friends will be sober? For example, our group recently stopped riding with a couple of guys who insisted on bringing 8-10 beers each onto the mountain.
Will your friend be nearby, ready to help in an emergency? Or are they prone to riding off and getting stuck or lost on their own, away from the group?
This is pretty subjective, but worth mentioning. If you decide you want to dig a test pit are you met with an offer to pitch in and help or is there a lot of eye-rolling and heavy sighing? How about if you recommend avoiding an area? Do the others in agree? Or do they heckle and scoff?
These are hard questions to ask yourself about your friends. The honest answers may be troubling. But these are all points about the people you ride with that need to be considered before heading into avalanche territory.
Unless you can take an honest look at these specifics you really can’t make a proper and safe travel plan. Does that mean that you can’t ride with certain individuals? Possibly yes, in some scenarios. At the very least make sure that their situation, gear and ability is a major part of your decision process on terrain and path selection.
If there is an emergency, it is—at a minimum—helpful to understand your group dynamics thoroughly. Group dynamics can mean the difference between life and death.
Be as Safe as You Can Be
It’s easy to say that you will never ride with someone who isn’t fully prepared. But in reality, situations are likely to arise in which you will decide to bend that rule. And if you do, you must make terrain choices with careful consideration of these factors. In the case of ol’ Uncle Bob coming along for the day, the answer isn’t necessarily a hard no, as long as the group is aware of his lacking capability and the trip plan reflects that. The group must be willing to essentially guide him without any expectation of assistance in the event of an emergency—and, in fact, know that he may actually be a liability.
Always be cognizant of your group’s abilities when route planning. Don’t ride like there are six clones of yourself ready to jump into action should the worst occur. Let your concerns be known to the group (politely of course) and offer guidance and assistance where possible.
If you have someone in your group who you know is not properly prepared, you should offer whatever assistance you can to help them become fully prepared. That can be as simple as offering to do beacon practice with them or loaning them any missing gear.
Ultimately, it may come down to your refusal to ride with a particular person until their preparedness improves. At the end of the day, coming home is the most important part of a ride. Safe mountain sledding is a team event, and everyone has a part to play in making it a success.