Prep Day Four: Beacons and Rescue Shelters on the Spearhead Glacier

Blackcomb quite likely has the best glaciated alpine backcountry terrain accessible from lifts outside of the Alps.  Certainly nothing else can compare to this in North America.  We needed to brush up a little of our emergency skills, so we picked up $45 one-trip-up lift tickets and headed OB.  30 minutes later we crossed the Blackcomb Glacier and left the ski area, heading over to the Spearhead Glacier.  After a fantastic 250-meter descent we stopped on the glacier to get some work done.

These are skills actually examined during the Ski Mountain Guide Course.  Students are expected to be able to perform three objective skills:  beacon searches, emergency shelters, and rescue sled lowers.  Backcountry skiers should always be wearing a "transceiver", also called a "beacon", that performs two funtions.  In normal use, it transmits a short-range radio signal so that if the wearer gets buried in an avalanche, the beacon can be found.  The beacon can also be switched to a recieve mode, which allows the searcher to home in on the strongest source of the signal and begin digging.  Students are expected to find three of these beacons, typically buried around 1-1.5 meters deep, in 7 minutes.

Beacon searches:  the rescuer had an assistant, while someone
else kept time and dug extra holes for the next search.

Students are also expected to be able to build an emergency shelter in 30 minutes big enough for three souls and sturdy enough to withstand a storm.  My strategy is to dig steadily for 20 minutes, then use three pairs of skis, poles, and a tarp to roof over the hovel.

20 minutes of digging created the pit on the left,
leaving 10 more minutes to create the roof shown right.

Afterwards we hiked up and entered the ski area by dropping into Husume Coulior (40 deg, 250m).  From the bottom of the run, we still had an 8km descent back to the base!