Avalanche Incident Response

Winter 2014

Awe-inspiring and incredibly fearsome, clouds of snow roar down a mountainside – an avalanche that collects everything in its path and buries it without deference to ownership, value, or life. When an accumulated pack of snow has too much of a load, anything can trigger an avalanche – the weight of a skier or an animal, and even a loud noise. Around such destructive forces, it’s about staying alive. 

Mike Laney’s passion is helping people stay alive in avalanche territory. This is his story.

No spectacular avalanche incident launched my lifelong passion for avalanche safety and rescue education. Instead, I learned that without the excellent avalanche education I received through the National Ski Patrol (NSP), I probably would not be alive today. 

In 1967, I began my first paid ski patrol job at a resort classified as a high avalanche hazard area. Fresh out of college, I had practically no experience in patrolling. Fortunately, the resort already had an NSP volunteer patrol with members who were both qualified avalanche safety and rescue instructors as well as experienced avalanche blasters (who initiate controlled avalanches with explosives). I trained with them on weekends and practiced what I learned midweek.

Instead of being caught up in an avalanche that season, I became a competent avalanche forecaster and blaster. I also developed a strong interest in avalanche education. Sensing that interest, the NSP instructors invited me to help teach avalanche safety and rescue courses. My interest blossomed into passion for the subject. 

I realized that education could keep people from exposing themselves to danger and save more lives than rescue ever could. At the same time, I understood that, despite safety education, part of human nature is to take risks, so the need for increasingly effective rescue would continue. 


To patrollers, a reported avalanche incident always must be regarded as a life-threatening emergency; few other aspects of patrolling have such immediacy. Further, the first assessment is for safety at the scene; it is likely that neither the scene nor the approach is safe.

Photo: Candace Horgan

The first wave of NSP rescuers deployed to an avalanche scene is equipped with rescue beacons (transceivers), shovels, probes (long poles to push into the snow), and flags to mark its route for those who follow. Members of the first team ensure that the area is safe from another avalanche, look for unburied victims, yell and listen for voices, perform a beacon search, turn over surface snow looking for clues (tracks, clothing, equipment), and probe likely spots to find survivors. Rescue dogs often accompany the team.

A second team includes medical personnel who treat survivors, then evacuate them from the area.

The third team arrives within an hour and supports the first two teams, often replacing members of the first two. If needed, the final group forms probe lines to search the scene methodically for possible survivors.


Some simple observations and tests can give early warnings of potential danger. The following list was developed by Ian McCammon in 2006 and is arranged to form the mnemonicALPTRUTh.

The presence of three or more of these clues indicates that any further decisions need to be made carefully. This threshold drops to two clues when persistent or deep, weak layers of snow are present.

  • Avalanche activity within the previous 48 hours – this is the greatest clue that the slopes are dangerous
  • Loading – new snow, rain, or wind-blown deposits rapidly add weight to buried weaker layers, making them more prone to collapse, the first step in slab (large blocks of snow) avalanche release
  • Path – open slopes with steepness of 30 degrees or greater and a history of prior avalanches, usually indicated by absence of trees, or trees that are much younger than those on either side of the slope
  • Terrain trap – features that can amplify consequences if caught (gullies, trees, cliffs, etc.)
  • Rating – “considerable” or above on the North American Public Avalanche Danger Scale 
  • Unstable snowpack – condition in which a buried weak layer is bearing so much weight that even the small additional weight load of a person can cause it to collapse
  • Thaw instability – melting due to warm temperatures and/or rain on snow. This also may include rapid warming, even if temperatures are still below freezing. Thaw weakens the snowpack, which, in turn, can become unstable as described above.

It’s about staying alive! 


Most avalanche education providers in the United States focus on individual recreationists, how they can enjoy their sport safely, and how companions can provide an immediate rescue response if someone is caught. The NSP also provides this kind of training, but the heart of its avalanche education program is to train professional rescuers (paid and volunteer) to participate in organized avalanche rescue operations.

Rescuers also must make safety decisions, both individually and collectively, during rescue operations, but they face different pressures, constraints, options, and skill requirements than recreationists. Team structure and decision making are more formalized. The NSP program is unique in this respect, born from avalanche rescue training for U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service snow rangers and ski patrollers in the 1950s and under continuous development ever since. 


Documentation indicates that about half of avalanche fatalities involve people who have not had any avalanche safety education at all. In addition, recreationists put themselves at risk despite experience, obvious danger indicators, advisories, and even their own trip plans, in which they had taken dangers into account. Education is the key to reducing avalanche fatalities.

The American Avalanche Association has developed recommended standards for avalanche education for recreationists in the United States. The NSP Avalanche program uses these standards as a baseline for curriculum content.

Avalanche Awareness and Level 1 Avalanche courses: “Level 1” is an American Avalanche Association designation for “fundamentals” courses, which constitute the minimum education recommended for recreationists who may be exposed to avalanche terrain. 

Introduction to Avalanche Safety: Rescue course for patrollers who have a general interest in the subject but, due to their location, are unlikely to encounter actual avalanche terrain. 

Level 1 Avalanche for Rescue Personnel: Module supplements regular Level 1 avalanche training with unique safety and rescue education for anyone involved in organized rescue operations. 

Level 2 (advanced) Avalanche: Course is especially designed to develop avalanche rescue leadership skills.

Safety topics for rescue personnel deal with:

  • External pressure to respond immediately without taking time to properly assess the situation
  • Subjecting rescuers to unfamiliar terrain
  • Dealing with the fact that, because an avalanche incident occurred, avalanche danger must be assumed to be at least “Considerable,” if not higher
  • No alternative destination and few alternative routes
  • Personnel burdened with rescue equipment
  • Standardized rescue management under the Incident Command System
  • Mechanized transportation, including helicopter safety

As with all NSP education programs, NSP avalanche curricula undergo continuous evaluation and updates to reflect current and the most reliable research and practices. Certified instructors undergo rigorous development, performance evaluation, and continuing education. These instructors develop lessons that are consistent with NSP Avalanche Program standards, yet are customized for their audiences and geography. These features make the NSP program’s quality and scope second to none.