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Avalanche rescue efforts report from bulgaria

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 
Bulgaria, as the rest of Europe, has been hit with a very dry winter. Snow levels have been way below average, where they exist at all and the temperatures have turned most of the available snow to ice. The first major snowstorm to hit the country arrived in the middle of this week and laid down 50cm of wet snow on layers that have spent close to a month in the freeze-thaw cycle. Naturally everybody went crazy despite the numerous warning given on sites, in papers and even on national tv: friday and saturday saw at least four avalanches in two different mountain ranges. One person died, one snowboarder rode it off and others survived with bruises and broken legs.

This is the story as reported by an eye witness of the first avalanche which happened on friday. The region is the Rila mountain, the trails discussed are part of the Borovets resort. The person buried was the live-in caretaker of the hut right underneath the tallest peak in the Balkans, Musalla. He crossed an avalanche path by foot, got swept and ultimately got discovered some 5 hours later, dead, by a rescue dog.

The reason I'm posting this here is, that the people involved would like to hear your opinions on the whole situation: should Mountain Rescue personnel (the main organization dealing with mountain issues in bulgaria, similar to whatever organizes partollers and rescue in canada and the us)
have acted the way they did? should they have made so many mistakes? The people from BEFSA (which you may have seen in TRs from this forum) are very active in educating skiers and snowboarders on avalanche safety. One has published a book and the group holds the only available (as far as I know) basic avalanche safety (avy-1) course each winter.

Here's the whole story. Patrollers and rescuers: how do you think should everybody have acted?


We arrived rather late due to the large queue of british, german and other tourists up the gondole. Around 11am we were on top and saw the side left of Markudzhik 3 (the most remote run of the resort), famously labeled "the avalanche" had slabbed. We were not surprised, especially since the new snow was deposited in very windy conditions.

Having seen natural avalanche activity we called our friends to put a warning on the web site and started booting up to the run, happy that the run (which is less steep than the slabbed face and more mellow) had not been touched by the resort snowcats. We did not even think to venture out of bounds since everybody knew the situation has been dire. We had checked the avalanche for signs of tracks entering it, and having seen nothing we decided it was natural.

The next two runs down Markudzhik 3 were fantastic: first powder day of the year, lots of laughs, pictures, smiles. It looked like a great day. The third run down we waited for one of ours who was delayed a bit. He came saying he had seen a man on the other side of the avalanche. Shouting to each other he gathered, that the other man was expecting the hut caretacer today, but the guy had not arrived in the expected hour. He asked that we relay to the lifties on Markudzhik 2 that the person is not there and does not answer his mobile phone. He was expected by noon. We contacted the lifties who said they had seen the person leaving their area on foot at around 10pm. His route did pass directly through the avalanche path, so we decided to check for his tracks on the next run, to rule out that he was caught.

Around 14:30 (judging from the timestamps on our camera photos) we were slowly descending on the right side of Markudzhik 3, checking out the avalanche path for any trails. We saw the person on the other side still looking around for trails. We came closer and saw tracks by a man on foot that end right at the avalanche cone and do not continue on the other side. A dark suspicion came upon us, that the hut caretaker has indeed been caught.

We were 7 people overall (all members of Befsa) and we all had transceivers, shovels and probes. We moved very carefuly close to the cone trying not to disturb his trail. The first thing we did was to look around for any unusual objects that can indicate where his location may be. Then we turned every beacon on receive and I went to the middle of the cone (radius 50m) to try and pick up a signal. No signal was found, so we put a spotter on the side to warn us, especially knowing that the second face next to this one had fractured, but had not fallen. We started probing down from the height at which the tracks disappeared. A bit later two of the members of the Mountain Rescue team came, perhaps they were the two on call. Neither had a probe, shovel or a beacon. We gave one of ours to one of the mountain rescue guys with which he started probing chaotically throughout the cone. The other stayed in a safe spot.

After covering a significant perimeter with coarse probing (in line, 2 arm lengths from each other) there were indications that the body may be in a specific area, where several of us stayed to do more fine-grained probing.

At this point we heard a snowcat come from below, entering the avalanche cone. It got a meter, meter-and-a-half into the cone when we heard a gread "whoop" sound and the whole cone gave in and moved down slightly. We all started shouting to the driver to stop, which, thankfully, he did. We slowly moved out so the snowcat can get out of the scene. All of us except the Mountain Rescue person. he stayed in the cone and decided to pee just a few meters away from the end of the person's tracks entering the cone. I do not want to question his work ethics, but we all know that neither smoking nor any other "natural activity" should be performed close to the avalanche as it may significantly effect the search dogs' performance.

After the snow track got away we continued with the searching, this time changing our "spotter". This time both Mountain Rescue guys got involved, searching with the probes delivered by the snowcat..

We had probed for close to three hours when the snowcat appeared again, this time stopping respectfully much further away from the avalanche. It brought a Moutain Rescue team from the city of Samokov nearby. There were around 6 people who stopped away from the avvie and started discussing it. Finally they came close and the eldest of them lit up a cigarette. We already knew that another team was coming from Sofia with dogs, so I told him to put the cigarette out, without any results. Right then he decided to take matters into his own hands and ordered us to get down to them so we can all probe together. We tried to explain that our probing was just finishing up half of the possible area, but the response was a condescending "get out of there!". "but we have been probing for three hours, let us finish our job!" one of us said, to which he said "get your **** and get out of here!".

With all due respect to Mountain Rescue, I don't believe his reaction was justified. It was now obvious that our help there was not needed. We tried to explain what we have searched and where, but from their reaction it was clear they didn't care. At the end, we decided to leave and got on our way down the road. On the way out, we saw Mountain Rescue searching the very same area we had not probed, so hopefully they heeded our advice.

It was getting dark on the track down, but we managed to spot a set of skis right by a very large rock. Under the rock itself we found a drunk brit, who had decided to sleep there. With a bit of pushing he was persuaded to put his skis on and come with us, but it turned out his skiing abilities were not up to par even with the low-slope road. We took him down almost all the way to Borovets, where a Moutain Rescue skidoo took him the rest of the way.

Later that night we read comments on the board that the hut caretaker had been found by a dog. We are happy the dog could find him even with the significant carelessness that we witnessed.

These are the facts of today, as I saw them.

Daniel 'Capelle' Kiradzhiev

The avalanche just before we got there. The green arrow points to the tracks of the unkown person on the other side, coming from the hut, which first alerted us to the fact that the caretaker had gone missing (you can also see him on the picture). The red arrow points to the caretaker's tracks.

The slab starting points. You can see the next face, which had fractured but had not fallen:


I will add one more picture, taken a week before at the very same spot. You can see that this country is in dire need of mountain safety education for the masses:

(nb: this is a crosspost from tgr, but we're trying to get wider audience with this)
post #2 of 3
Interesting story. Thanks for sharing it. I suspect that our West Coast snowpack is in similar poor condition to accept a significant new accumulation of snow. We have had no snow for all of January, and the snow has metamorphosed into facets with some depth hoar due to shallow depth and high temperature differentials.

Anyway, the most obvious thing I see in the story above is that a search was being conducted in a slide that had occurred many hours previous. Any full burial at that length of time is a recovery, not a rescue. The concern is that many searchers were put at considerable risk by entering a slide area with hangfire and visible instability above. There also appears to be another slide on that slope beyond your green arrow that crosses the path. Most recoveries (as opposed to rescue) in the US would probably be delayed until that risk was controlled, particularly in, or adjacent to a ski area. The severe instability of the situation was illustrated by movement of the slide when the cat got on it. Had there been a potential for rescue, the risk may have been worthwhile. The potential rescuers were in the same position as that line of people walking in mass across the slide zone. This may also explain why that arrogant SOB was yelling at you to get your asses out of there. I tend to agree with his point of view.

FWIW, this is clearly Monday morning quarterbacking, and I may have seen things differently on-scene. Its never easy to be part of a recovery. Sadly there is a very short window of time for rescue and the potential for rescue/ recovery need to be weighed against the risks of being in a high hazard area.

I think there is a lot that could be second-guessed about the caretaker. He had alternative paths that could have worked, He traveled alone, and did not carry a beacon or any rescue gear, yet lived and traversed this dangerous zone on a routine basis. This trail appears to be very heavily traveled. Perhaps a sign explaining the danger and safe crossing procedures is in order, or relocating the path?.
post #3 of 3
Thread Starter 
thanks Cirquerider, i think controlling the other potential slide first would have been a wise decision!

FWIW, the TGR thread has more information from one of the guys there, including pictures:

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