Emergency Skills – Written by David Roberts
So far in this series of articles, we’ve looked at what equipment to buy, how to plan and carry out a ski-touring day and some of the mountaineering skills that are needed for the BASI Level 4 European Mountain Safety module. In the final blog for this winter, we’ll have a look at the two skills which are tested for when things go wrong: ski belays and multiple transceiver searches.
When things go right: Christian Lindley amongst spectacular scenery in Vichères, Switzerland
Ropes & Ropework – When?
As ski instructors, we shouldn’t be setting out on routes with clients where we are planning to use a rope. That is leading us into terrain that is the remit of IFMGA Guides (and/or MICs in Scotland). So when might you actually want to use a rope? There are two possible scenarios, which immediately come to mind.
Firstly, you might have skinned or boot packed up to col with the intention of skiing down a couloir on the other side. The top pitch is a bit steep but soon becomes flatter (remember that you’ve only 25 to 30 metres of rope with you!). There’s potential for you to protect your clients as they do the steep sideslip into the couloir, so long as there’s enough parking space for them all where the rope run runs out. Remember that there’s no abseiling on EMS, so you will have to ski whatever you’ve lower your clients down.
David Roberts and Christian Lindley practicing ropework. Photo: Mischa Wykurz
Secondly, you might be ascending to a col and can see that the last few metres are steeper than usual and slightly corniced. You’re worried that if a client falls off the climb, they might be hurt and so you decide that you need to protect them with the rope. In this scenario, you need to be happy to solo up the steep part yourself, remembering that ski instructors don’t have crampons or ice axes.
In both scenarios, the easiest, quickest, less stressful and often most safe option is to go back the way that you’ve come. Using the rope is time consuming, especially if you haven’t practiced it. If you’re slow and hesitant and don’t look that confident or competent, you’ll probably not inspire confidence in a group of clients who are already a little bit worried. The EMS course only teaches one way to anchor the rope. Depending on the scenario, there might be other quicker, easier and safer ways to use the rope, which you haven’t been trained or assessed in. Overall, the best policy is to avoid getting into a situation where you have no other choice than to use the rope.
Ropes & Ropework – What?
Nonetheless, ropework is part of the EMS syllabus, so what sort of rope do you need? Probably the most suitable type is a 30 metre long “corde de randonnée” or walking rope. Something like this or this but not this. These ropes are light and pack down fairly small, which is good for something that you’re going to carry up a mountain but never use. On the downside, they’re generally 8mm diameter and so it’s a good idea to pack a cheap pair of gardening gloves in with your rope to protect your hands. You’ll also need two HMS or pear-shaped karabiners. These are designed to be used with the friction knot called the Italian hitch (or Munter hitch). The more you pay, the less metal you get, as lighter karabiners require more design, engineering and metalworking. Lastly, you’ll need a sling. This is a loop of climbing tape. Again, the more you pay, the thinner and lighter the sling will be. It will also be easier to tie knots in it. A good length is a 16foot or 240cm sling (British climbers often describe slings by their circumference and in Imperial units, whereas Europeans describe slings by how long they are and in metric.).
Stuff sack, rope, sling & karabiners.
The best way to store all of this is NOT to coil the rope. Stuff it into a draw-string bag, as you would a throw-line for rescuing people from water. Here’s a video to show you how. Always tie a knot in the end of the rope before you start to put it into the bag. Then, when you are lowering a client down a steep slope, the end of the rope can’t slide through your hands. Tie a loop into the top end of the rope and clip your karabiners and sling onto it, so they they’re easy to find. Keeping your rope in a bag protects it from damage and stops it from tangling around other things in your backpack. Remember to take your rope out of its bag and gently dry it when you get home.
Ropes & Ropework – How?
The way to anchor your rope into the snow for EMS Assessment is to use a horizontal ski belay. Climbers do a similar thing but use an ice axe instead. The process is very similar and is described extremely well in this video from Glenmore Lodge. Unlike mountaineers, we don’t add ourselves into the anchor system, so getting the construction correct is vitally important. Get it wrong and you might drop a client a long way or your ski might fly out of the hole and smack you in the head. Choosing the right snow to dig your anchor into also requires skill and judgement. Again, it’s best to avoid using the rope if you can.
Josh Maddison digs in – Col des Mines, Verbier
Once you’ve built your belay, stop and have a quick think about how you’re going to use the Italian hitch or friction hitch. Make sure that you’ve got the pattern clear in your head. Here’s a short video from the world of caving, featuring the Italian hitch. Attach your client using your preferred loop and get them to the edge of the drop, facing you. You want to keep the rope as tight as possible at all times and avoid shock loading your system. Get your client to sit down and slide gently over the lip. Lower them slowly down to the point where it’s safe to untie. If you’re going to rope people up a climb, you’ll need to learn to throw a rope accurately, as kayakers do for river rescue. Here’s a video of how to do it. Again there’s a lot to learn and practice and remember. It really is better to plan your day with escape options, so that you’re never forced to use your rope.
Safe in his hands – Mike Kirk lowering the author using an Italian hitch
As with using the rope, the best way to avoid ever having to do this for real is to plan, give yourself options and be ready to change or abandon your plans during the course of your journey. If you or your group are caught in an avalanche and survive the initial fall, you have just 15 minutes to be dug out with a high chance of survival (*). To pass the EMS Assessment you have to find two transceivers in 8 minutes but remember that finding the people is only half the battle. You then have to dig possibly tonnes of snow off them before they’re out in the air.
As mentioned in the first article in this series, modern transceivers with multiple receiving aerials and mark functions can make the job a lot less stressful. Whether you’re doing this for real or just feeling the pressure of being in an exam, every advantage you can give yourself is worth it. Having said this, the best transceiver is the one that you understand and have practiced using. Transceiver searches are an acquired skill, just like shorts for a technical exam or skier analysis in a teaching exam.
Josh Maddison practicing searches under the Bec des Rosses, Verbier
The first thing to do with your transceiver is to read the instruction book. Modern transceivers all have slightly different displays and functions, so it’s well worth understanding what your device can and can’t do. If your local resort has a transceiver park, go there and play with your transceiver. Get to know what buttons you need to press and when to press them. How do its coarse and fine search modes work? Does it have a mark or special search function? How long does it take to recalculate after you’ve mark the first victim? What is maximum search range of your transceiver? Most transceiver parks will let you search for single or multiple burials. They will also tell you your split and total times for each search, so you can see if your skill is improving.
An important factor with transceiver searches is to be methodical. If you miss a victim as you ski down on your coarse search, you’ll waste a lot of time walking back up to them. When you’re doing your fine search, keep the transceiver on the surface of the snow and move it as though you were pushing and pulling it through treacle. The computer inside needs time to do the maths and the unit that your searching for only transmits a “bleep” about once a second. Make sure that you probe consistently perpendicular to the snow surface and that the spacing of your holes is consistent too. Your target is a buried rucksack, which has about the same cross section as a human, buried vertically.
If you struggle getting your times fast consistent, then it’s a good idea to get some extra training or go on a specialist course. Some resorts have free coaching available at certain times of the week. The best way to become good at searches is to get out there and practice, so stop reading this and get out in the snow! Oh, but before you do…
“…I went skiing. The rest of the world is just chaos.”
Glen Plake, “Steep”
The BASI Level 4 European Mountain Safety module is just the start of your journey into the world of off-piste skiing and ski-mountaineering. When compared with the requirements for Winter Mountain Leader, International ML, Mountain Ski Leader and especially IFMGA Guide the EMS requirements are fairly easy and minimal but in theory you can take paying clients into some very remote and serious terrain. Get out in the hills. Use the tools and knowledge that you’ve worked hard to acquire. Practice the skills and have some adventures. Experience matters a lot when it comes to making good decisions. Most of all, enjoy skiing because it’s the best way to travel in the mountains and who knows where it might take you!
Going skiing – Cerro Fitzroy & Cerro Torre from the Patagonian Ice Cap, November 2011
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
John Muir, “The Mountains of California”