Avalanche Rescue: The Impact of Natural Disasters


skis in snowLast week I made a presentation at the Canadian Avalanche Association’s Annual Conference on the potential psychological impact of avalanches on rescuers and offered ideas on what kinds of services rescue operations should have in place to support staff.


Imagine how difficult it might be…


We can all imagine how difficult it would be for rescuers when there are multiple fatalities in an avalanche. But what about the near misses, a crippling injury, a mountain guide that’s gotten caught in an avalanche that’s gone through the trees and survived, or whose had a close call in a tree well? What about the first responders to an avalanche where the victims are teenagers on a school ski trip, or where there are generations of snowmobilers caught? What happens to the rescuers when they have to recover the body of a friend from an avalanche?


Possible impacts of natural disasters like avalanches


Unfortunately after a big wreck or avalanche, or after a number of incidents that rescuers have been involved in, life can change dramatically. Rescuers may become alcoholics, may have problems in their personal relationships including divorce, or may quit working in the field altogether. For a time, some may feel like they lose their instinct or judgment in the outdoors or may question their competence.


Cowboy up


Traditionally, many mountain guides and other people working in the outdoors didn’t talk about incidents in which they played a part. They got back on the horse and rode.




Fortunately, things are changing because people are realizing that that may not work so well.  More and more rescuers are doing something different. They’re participating in critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), receiving some psychological first aid, and/or doing some very deliberate things to take care of themselves and the people they care about.


As a trained CISD facilitator, I’ve witnessed some really good things happen. Talking through an incident has helped many people re-establish a sense of competency, has helped them recognize what they’re doing that’s really helping, and has brought people closer together as they support one another through a previously taboo subject.


In conversations one-on-one with rescuers, many have been able to make sense of the avalanche or incident in a new way, have been able to reinforce what they’re doing that’s helping them feel better even in the smallest of ways, and have figured out ways to help themselves manage stress as best as they can under the circumstances.


What about you? Have you been involved in an avalanche or some other disaster? What’s helped you to move past it effectively? I’d love to hear your comments!!