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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 26 November 2011

SITTING in the warmth and safety of the cafeteria at Glenmore Lodge, sportscotland’s national outdoor training centre near Aviemore, chief instructor Ian Sherrington is describing the sinking feeling of being caught in an avalanche.

“I was working in the Alps,” he says. “If you have a couple of guides, which we did, you can put in lines either side of an area and say to clients ‘ski anywhere within that’. Sometimes if the group can’t ski tight lines it’s better to give them a big target.

“I was skiing the right hand line, which I knew was on slightly steeper ground, but I thought I was well within the [safe] angles.

“Anyway, it was a big slab and it started to slide. I managed to put in a turn, and as it was sliding I jumped across a gap that was at least two metres down.

“I remember thinking ‘Wow, that was quite big’. I didn’t really care how I landed.”

As any backcountry skier will tell you, the best way to avoid being avalanched is to read the terrain correctly, but Sherrington, an experienced guide, would have been as alert to the danger signs as anyone. If there’s a moral to his story, then, it’s this: sometimes it doesn’t matter how careful you are – sometimes avalanches just happen, and when they do, you need to know how to respond.

With this in mind, sportscotland and Glenmore Lodge have teamed up with Backcountry Access (BCA), specialists in avalanche safety equipment, to create the world’s first all-weather avalanche transceiver park. The 500 square metre area of woodchips in the Lodge grounds may not look like much, but it has the potential to save lives this winter, and for many winters to come.

A skier buried under avalanche debris has a surprisingly good chance of survival if dug out in under 15 minutes – in excess of 90 per cent. Beyond that, however, the odds are dramatically reduced as air becomes scarce. A skier buried for 45 minutes has his chances cut to less than 30 per cent.

To put it mildly, then, time is of the essence. If you’re avalanched while skiing off piste, mountain rescue teams probably won’t be able to get to you inside 15 minutes, let alone dig you out in that time. Your only realistic hope of survival is if you’re wearing an avalanche transceiver (a device that emits a pulsing radio signal) and if your friends are also carrying transceivers and know how to use them.

There’s nowhere near enough space to explain avalanche rescue technique properly here – for full details follow the links at the bottom of the page or, better still, take an avalanche safety course at Glenmore or elsewhere. Broadly speaking, though, the process breaks down into three stages: 1) searching using a transceiver, which can usually take you to within a metre or two of the victim; 2) confirming their location by repeatedly pushing a probe (a bit like a telescopic tent pole) through the snow until you hit something soft and fleshy; and 3) digging as quickly as humanly possible.

Of course, you don’t need a specially made park to practice transceiver and probe technique, but the beauty of the Glenmore facility is that it saves you having to climb a hill in the middle of winter and start digging lots of holes. There are four transceivers buried under the woodchips (a medium specially chosen to simulate avalanche debris) and instructors can turn them on and off from a central control box, confronting trainee rescuers with a range of different scenarios.

Scotland may not get as much snow as the Alps or the Rockies, but we still get our fair share of avalanches. Last year the sportscotland Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) recorded some 178 slides. Many of those were naturally occurring, but 33 were triggered by skiers, climbers or walkers, and there was one fatality. Sherrington reckons the majority of backcountry skiers already carry the necessary avalanche kit, but he says it’s still essential to practice using it regularly: “It’s like first aid – everyone knows the principles of resuscitation but if you’re not practised at it you won’t be able to do it just like that when you need to.”

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