Properly Using Avalanche Beacons to Search for Victims

By Alex Jenkins
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You bought an avalanche beacon for your big trek this winter, but would you know how to use it if an avalanche suddenly buries you and your party? The time to learn how to save the life of an avalanche victim isn’t when an avalanche strikes – it’s now. First, no member of your group should be without a beacon that both sends a signal to other transceivers and switches to search mode to help you rescue someone trapped under the snow. Be sure to study the manual of your beacon, as every personal locator beacon is different. Regardless what kind of locating device you have, there are certain steps you should follow to search effectively.

Before Searching
Before you begin your primary search phase, make sure the scene is safe. Many times after an avalanche, there can be a secondary avalanche. These aren't as big as the first one but still present a dangerous situation. Determine the number of possible buried victims. If you were fortunate enough to see where the person was when the avalanche hit, go to the place you last saw them and look for any signs such as skis, boots, gloves or other equipment in the area, and start searching there. As always, if possible, call for help and turn your beacon onto search mode.

Primary Search Phase
In this phase, you will locate a signal from the victim’s beacon. First, organize search patterns for each person present. The number of rescuers you have determines the path you will take. If there are multiple searchers, you can spread out across the debris field and take a straight path down the field. Stay about 100 feet apart from each other to prevent multiple beacons from causing interference with one another. Look and listen without focusing too much on your beacon. If you are searching alone, start at the top and wind down the field side to side. If there are two of you, use a zigzag pattern staying 30 meters or 100 feet apart from each other.

Secondary Search Phase
Once you have located a signal, it's time to locate your victim. When there is a single victim and multiple searchers, one person conducts the beacon search while the others assemble shovels and probes while visually searching the debris. Too many searchers following one signal so close together will confuse the beacons. Some personal locator beacons let you mark where victims are and continue searching for more, which is extremely useful if you are searching alone and there are multiple burials. When you find and mark one of the victims, use your probe and mark the site.

One thing to remember is you will not be walking a straight path to the victim during this search phase. Rather, you will follow an arc along the flux line. All beacons use these lines to help locate a buried victim and indicate the distance on an LCD screen in either meters or feet. Consult the manual of your beacon to determine how exactly it works. But once you are about 10 feet, or 3 meters, from the victim, begin the pinpoint phase.

Pinpoint Search Phase
Once you are within 10 feet of the victim, you have to pinpoint their exact location so you can dig them out as fast as possible. To do this, you need to hold your beacon parallel to the snow, just barely off the surface. Slowly sweep your beacon back and forth in a cross pattern directly above the snow’s surface. Keep an eye on the LED light and continual beeping of your beacon. Once you determine the place where the signal is strongest, you have located the victim. Now pull out your shovel and begin digging straight down.

There are multiple ways to enjoy the unexplored backcountry, especially during the winter. Whether you are into extreme sports or want to backpack and enjoy an adventure, being prepared is essential. This article is in no way meant to replace certified training courses, but it can give you some general guidance on how to search for victims buried in an avalanche.

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