Rest assured, this is a training exercise! RISQ 4 is the name of a local association created 10 years ago. The majority of its members are also members of the rescue patrol on the slopes of Les Contamines Montjoie. The association organizes ski competitions, off-piste derbys and ski touring challenges, festive evenings and events.
Sunday 22nd March was dedicated to snow safety and avalanches. After a week of spring conditions, it had started to snow again. The fir trees were covered with a few inches of fresh snow and the morning skiers were already enjoying the light powder conditons on the mini off-piste area underneath the Jonction chairlift!
10:00 am: Meeting point at the First Aid Post at Signal, 1869 m altitude.
I was greeted by Jean-Luc – a member oft the ski patrol – and Athos, a beautiful flat-coated retriever and trained avalanche dog accompanied by his master Fred. Fred has worked on the ski area for more than 20 years and is responsible for the slopes. He is also Treasurer of the association RISQ 4. He explained the programme and we headed towards the training area located below the first aid post, prepared the previous day by the snow-grooming team to recreate avalanche conditions.
10:30 am: The first participanrs arrive on site.
Brice , a young high school student from Hauteluce wants to be a farmer like his father but he also aspires to become a member of the ski patrol in winter. Highly motivated, he is about to start on a work experience course here!
Alexander, a young engineer in Lyon, left his native Normandy to be closer to the slopes. Passionate about free-ride, he wants to further his knowledge in prevention and security.
We were also joined by several ski touring enthusiasts, snowboarders and snow-shoe walkers. In total, about 20 people were present at 11.00 am for the briefing with the ski patrol.
After explaining the use of a DVA (avalanche victim detection device) those participants that didn’t have their own were given one for the exercise. We began to search for the „victim“ in groups of 2, with the help of a member of the rescue patrol. Our first imaginary victim was a backpack, equipped with a DVA transmiter, voluntarily buried somewhere in the snow!
We progressed in a Z formation following the information on our DVA (an indication of our distance from the victim). Within a metre of the victim it is necessary to use a cross marking method to discover the exact position. Fred completed our first exercise with an explanation and a demonstration of the RECCO system, also used by rescuers to optimize searching.
The next step is called sounding/probing. We were given an explanation and demonstration of how to handle the probe, an essential tool for all those who venture off piste! Then came our turn to try…
Easier than handling the DVA device we rapidly made contact with the bag.To make the situation more realistic, the bags were then replaced by 2 teams of 2 volunteers that our trainers buried in previously prepared holes in the snow. This time Athos, the avalanche dog, was responsible for the search.
Released by his master about 50 metres from the area, Athos almost immediately located the “scent” of Camille and Brice (the first team buried) and, after a little hesitation around the mound of snow blocks, he began to scratch frantically. Digging without respite and progressing at an impressive speed he reached the frst victim in two minutes. Fred then called in the team of rescuers who managed to dig Camille out within seconds, followed by Brice. They receieved a well deserved round of applause from the participants and numerous spectators that had gathered at Signal to watch as the morning mist lifted. The second operation was renewed with the same speed and the same success as the first.
The last phase of the exercise involved an explanation and demonstration of the third essential tool: a shovel. It looks so easy when performed by professionals such as Xavier and Yannick but our novice group unanimously agreed that fortunately we were not in a real rescue situation when the first 15 minutes are vital. We definatley need to train more regularly!
1:00 p.m.: Early afternoon our group of apprentice rescuers were given a short lesson on the Airbag and its handling. This piece of equippment will certainly become the 4th esssential tool after the famous trilogy: DVA, probe and shovel.
The day ended with a presentation by Olivier, a qualified mountain guide, on the preparation of an off-piste outing, reading and analysis of the weather forecast and the BRA (avalanche risk report) as well as a reminder of the basic safety instructions.
Again congratulations and sincere thanks to all the team for this fun and very rewarding day. In addition to carrying out an extraordinary profession with skill, enthusiasm and humanity, the rescue patrol extend their investment with the greatest humility and professionalism during these voluntary training sessions. Such events should take place more often with the installation of a permanent training ground and better publicty to raise awareness in greater numbers.
Visit our webzine to find out more about ATHOS and his handler in a recent article on avalanche rescue dogs written by our amassadress Sylvianne.