Rescue Sled Fundamentals: Part One – Equipment Modifications
by Shaun Nauman
PART 1 | PART 2 >>
Having a backcountry accident is something no one wants to dwell on. Building a rescue sled isn’t something we want to think about either. Most people base a premise that if they get hurt in the backcountry, their buddy will just call for help, or ride / ski out to cell service and call for help. I have been in areas this season that are 6+ miles to cell service on a fair weather day. The reality is that most Search and Rescue (SAR) will take several hours to organize. If the weather is bad, they will not put more lives at risk to get to you. Often a SAR will be 6-8 hours before they reach you, and sometimes not even until the next day. You can’t count on a rescue if it is afternoon – the reality is, it may not happen.
In areas of designated wilderness or National Parks which account for roughly 80% of the terrain many of us snowboard in; snowmobiles and in some cases helicopters cannot even be used. A SAR team would have to locate you, and transport you out. The probability that you will spend a night in the elements before SAR reaches you in the winter is pretty high.
Even moving a full grown adult a few hundred feet with several guys can be an all day task in the winter with average snow conditions. Personally I would be very reluctant to leave someone in the backcountry, even if the reasoning is to get to cell service or summon help. In these cases, it is much more expedient to make a quick rescue sled and evacuate them yourself. If nothing else transporting them to trees, rocks, or some other form of natural shelter while you go for help, or before nightfall.
While companion rescue is covered in AIARE Level 2, and Mountain and Travel Rescue (MTR2) – this goes a little beyond the theory and practice to actual application focusing especially on the equipment modifications.
I would like to extend a special thanks to the K2 Backside Development Team, K2 Technical Support, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG), and AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide Chris Baccus for spending a few hours of their time to cover rescue specifics as it relates to backcountry snowboarding and AT skiing. The information, resources, and instruction for building a rescue sled, and the information contained in this article are made possible by the aforementioned parties.
A rescue sled utilizes the items you have with you. These items are skis or a splitboard, poles, avalanche shovel, cordelette, and a few ski straps. No one (at least that I know) is going to carry in extra gear and / or weight for things that ‘might’ happen. In other words, people are not going to carry a rescue sled kit that will likely never be used.
The K2 Backside Development Team has already put together an easy to follow and informative video on rescue sled assembly. Take a moment to watch the video, and I will show you a few easy modifications you can make to equipment you already carry in the backcountry. (Direct link to video here).
The equipment I have modified, I always have with me in the backcountry anyway – namely the avalanche shovel. I have modified my avalanche shovel by drilling four holes in the handle area, and adding four bolts with wing nuts that store inside the handle. I always carry cordelette in my pack. All K2, La Sportiva and G3 skis & splitboards will likely already have holes in the tips and tails.
Our friends at Teton Gravity Research also have advice on the issue, here…
To modify your avalanche shovel you will need some basic things:
- Center punch
- 1/4″ drill bit (cobalt, bi-metal, or titanium coated)
- Step bit
- (4) 1/4″ wingnuts
- (8) 1/4″ washers
- 6mm x 30′ cordelette
- (4) ski straps
- (4) 2 1/2″ – 3″ x 1/4″ bolts
30 feet of 6 millimeter cordelette can be found at most any outdoor shop, especially those that carry rockclimbing gear. REI for example carries 30′ x 6mm for $8 US. Be sure to get a cordelette that is 100% polyester, and not the hardware store variety of general nylon rope. Polyester is 25% stronger when wet, has less stretch, is more durable, and is typically braided 16 or 24 – which is a dense outer sheath and will not break or chafe for this application. Keep in mind this is a static line! It is not intended for vertical rescue, crevasse rescue, or climbing because it will not absorb energy from fall!
Ski straps are marketed by many outdoor gear companies to include Voile, G3, and Black Diamond. Ski straps are unique for several reasons. The can take an enormous amount of tensile pull in very low temperatures without cracking or breaking. They also have a little elastic to them so that they stay securely tight. Almost everyone I know carries them in the backcountry. They are handy for making an a-frame ski or splitboard carry for bootpacking, couloir climbing, or trail hiking. They are more versatile than zip-ties or duct tape, and some people carry them in a first aid kit as a tourniquet. I usually always have two in my pack, so it was an easy decision two grab two more to keep in the pack (total of four) encase a rescue sled is ever needed.
Avy shovel modification
Next, I modified the avalanche shovel with holes equally spaced on each of the two portions of the shovel handle. I also drilled an addition two holes in the shovel (the Voile & BCA shovels already have holes in them for a deadman anchor). You will not jeopardize the shovel by drilling it – most shovels are made from T6 — if anything you will notice you will need a sharp bi-metal or titanium coated drill bit to pierce it.
Lastly, you will need four 2 1/2″ x 1/4″ bolts with washers and wingnuts. I place all of them in a small ziplock bag and store them inside the shovel handle. Very easy – hardly any noticeable weight. If you are a weight junkie concerned about the mere ounces, you can get these bolts in 6AL-4V [6-4 aerospace grade] titanium from specialty fastener companies online.
These are the only items you will need to add or modify. It’s just too easy, and hardly any weight difference if it could mean saving you friend’s life in the backcountry.
Again, the modifications mentioned here can then be applied to the K2 Backside Development Team video mentioned above. Building a rescue sled should be a part of beacon drills at least once a year. You will be surprised how easy it is to haul a person that is even double your weight.
In part two we will cover how to assemble a rescue sled.
Additional photos of modifications:
PART 1 | PART 2 >>