Story last updated at 3/18/2009 - 8:55 pm
For the CCW
JUNEAU - A training tool designed to help rescuers find avalanche victims has opened at Eaglecrest Ski Area, providing the public the opportunity to practice using avalanche gear that is widely carried in the backcountry.
The Easy Searcher Avalanche Training System simulates an avalanche area where up to six victims are buried. The unit is incorporated into a "beacon park" that opened in mid-February. Beacon parks are becoming more popular at ski areas in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
The idea is to use a beacon and probe - items carried by many backcountry the public - to find "victims" of an avalanche. Users choose a difficulty level on a control panel, then are timed by the device as they conduct a standard search. Up to six "pads" buried in the snow are randomly activated by the device, then the unit alerts searchers and records the time when "found."
The training unit tracks proficiency at finding targets, an important skill for backcountry travelers, since quick rescue times improve the chance of surviving an avalanche. Studies show that an avalanche victim found in less than 15 minutes has about a 90 percent chance of survival. At 35 minutes, the survival rate drops to less than 40 percent.
"As more backcountry access is occurring, the Easy Searcher unit can provide skiers, boarders and others with the chance to practice and improve their skills using avalanche locator beacons," said Juneau Mountain Rescue Administrative Director Doug Wessen.
Search and rescue organizations throughout Southeast Alaska teamed up to acquire the Easy Searcher at a cost of about $15,000. The Alaska Search and Rescue Association provided the majority of funding under a grant request by Juneau Mountain Rescue, Eaglecrest Ski Patrol, SEADOGS, Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center and the Juneau Snowmobile Club.
Alaska has more avalanche deaths than any other state, and its capital city presents the highest urban avalanche potential in the country, according to the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center. In addition to urban avalanche danger, Juneau's location and geography present the danger of avalanche for backcountry and wilderness the public, including backcountry skiers, snow machiners, snowshoers and hikers.
The Easy Searcher allows several different search and rescue organizations involved with Juneau's citywide avalanche plan to conduct cross-training and multi-agency exercises. These drills improve emergency response for victims of an avalanche and provide better proficiency in beacon location skills should an avalanche hit rescue team members during a rescue or search.
The Easy Searcher will primarily be set up at Eaglecrest's beacon park, but the unit is portable so rescue groups can use it throughout Southeast. It is located in a flat meadow on skiers' left between the bottom of Raven and the top of Log Jam ski runs. Signs mark its location and explain how to use it.
The park is a convenient way to practice avalanche beacon skills, said Eaglecrest Ski Patrol Director Brian Davies, adding that more skiers are purchasing and carrying avalanche gear as backcountry travel becomes more popular.
"We hope a lot of people will practice," Davies said. "Unless you know how to use the gear, it isn't that useful. And the only way to get proficient is to practice."