In this interview, Markus Wey, Technical Manager and mountain guide at MAMMUT Alpine School, explains how to prepare appropriately for the ski touring winter and what you can expect on an avalanche training course with MAMMUT Alpine School. He also talks about his many years of experience in mountain rescues, searches for people buried under the snow with his avalanche dog and whether he himself has ever been caught up in such a situation.
As an experienced mountain guide and rescuer, you are confronted with critical situations. Can you tell us about your experiences?
We face different situations during avalanche rescue operations. In most cases, the people who have not been buried in the avalanche carry out the immediate actions at the site and start the search. However, there are unfortunately still some snow sports enthusiasts who venture into unsecured areas without safety equipment. In the absence of electronic devices, the only way you can search for people is with the help of an avalanche dog. Depending on the type of snow, it can take some time for the scent to become strong enough for the dog to pick up. After 15 minutes, the chance of survival for anyone buried under the snow falls to below 50 percent. So it's important that companion rescue starts immediately after burial and that the alerted rescue team (Rega, SAC) can move patients to safety as quickly as possible.
Time means life when searching for buried subjects. What does this mean exactly?
Anyone who ventures into unsecured terrain in winter should be aware that an avalanche represents a life or death situation and every minute counts. Carrying the safety equipment described in any reference book allows you to start searching for buried companions immediately. This equipment and the required proficiency in its use is the only way to help buried subjects in time.
Thorough preparation for the ski touring season starts even before the first snowfall. Can you explain what this involves?
Even before the first snow has fallen, all equipment needs to be checked. Electronic devices must be maintained and any firmware updates installed. All mechanisms on shovels and probes, airbag system deployment units and the fill weight and attachment of cartridges must be checked. And skis and bindings, skins and poles also need to be inspected to ensure they are working correctly.
Why is good and regular avalanche training so important?
Modern safety products are becoming increasing fast and precise, and easier to operate. However, this does not mean that they will work without training and regular practice. Continuous practice is essential to familiarize yourself with the specific features and quirks of your equipment and respond appropriately. If you can operate something in your sleep, it is more likely that you will use it correctly in an emergency situation too.
What can you expect when you sign up for avalanche training with MAMMUT Alpine School?
When you buy a new cell phone, you are constantly picking it up, trying out all its features and so you very quickly become familiar with the device and all its quirks. The same applies for avalanche equipment, and in particular a transceiver. You should practice using it as often as possible and in difficult conditions. This is precisely the aim of our avalanche training courses.
Is it actually possible to train for an exceptional situation such as burial in an avalanche?
If you can operate something in your sleep, this gives you the best chance of being to use it correctly in an exceptional situation too.
How important is the right equipment?
Extremely important. However, even the best equipment is only as effective as the proficiency of the user and his or her handling, operation and responses.
How much training does a dog need before it can be used in real-life searches for buried subjects?
Training begins when the dog is just a puppy, with fun exercises to prepare it for its future role as a search dog. Lots of short training sessions help the animal to understand what is expected from it and how to do this. The dog's skills are developed intensively during the first year and then consolidated to allow this knowledge to be put into practice during the assessments. Two years is then the earliest age at which the team is ready to take part in actual operations.
Have you worked on many rescue operations with your dog? Does he need recovery time too?
Last winter, we were called out three times. All these situations involved snow masses on sections of road, luckily no people were buried. The dog needs very little time to recover. In longer rescue operations, the dog can be working for up to one hour at a time. After a break of just half an hour, it is ready to start working again. Of course, in the same way as for humans, it also depends on the dog's level of training.
Is your dog rewarded for a successful rescue operation?
The dog is constantly motivated. Words of praise or even a reward don't matter to the dog, he just wants to show what he can do. If the intervention is not successful, we do a role play exercise for all the dogs and bury someone in the snow. When the dogs find this person, they are rewarded with lots of treats.
Markus Wey has been working in mountain rescue for many years. He tells us about his wealth of experience.
What factors play a decisive role in a positive outcome?
As the first person to attend an emergency situation, it is always important to correctly assess the potential danger. Your own safety comes first. All possible precautions are therefore taken to ensure we can exit the danger area as quickly as possible in the event of a secondary avalanche. For us as mountain rescuers, a positive outcome is when nothing else occurs and both patient and rescuer emerge from the situation unharmed.
How does it feel when you manage to rescue someone who has been buried by an avalanche?
It's simply your job. It is, of course, a very tense situation, you don't know what you're going to come up against. However, you need to put emotions aside, you are at work and fully occupied.
Mountain rescue operations are extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. How do you deal with this?
A rescue operation generally pushes you to the limits of both physical performance and personal safety. A debriefing is held after each operation. We discuss how it went and consider the psychological aspects too.
"Should I ever be buried by an avalanche, I hope that my guests really understood the training and that they take the right steps in my hopefully fast rescue."
What personal lessons have you learned in all your years of mountain rescue work?
That it is absolutely better if you are never caught up in an avalanche.
Have you ever been in an avalanche?
No. Luck undoubtedly plays a role. But I also put the fact that I have never been buried down to good preparation and a healthy respect for nature. My motto is: have the courage to go, but also the courage to turn back.