Search and rescue teams from across the state gathered near Black Lake at Vail Pass on Thursday morning to take part in a mock-avalanche rescue, hoping to educate community members about how their operations work and the dangers of venturing into the backcountry unprepared.
Representatives from about a dozen organizations statewide — including Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and members of the Summit County Rescue Group — were present to participate in the exercise and speak to members of the media to inform the public about the harsh consequences of avalanches as well as to show the importance of rescue teams and the agencies supporting them in keeping their communities safe.
“I think it’s important to raise awareness of the fact that the backcountry is a beautiful place, and it’s a rewarding thing, but there are hazards,” said Dale Wang of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group out of Boulder. “I think it’s good for the public to know what we do at search and rescue and what’s involved. … It’s a challenge; it’s a puzzle to solve. But it’s for very real stakes. There’s always a real person involved who is lost or injured or needs assistance.”
Summit County Rescue Group’s Charles Pitman began the exercise by interviewing a witness of the mock avalanche to gather information on what happened and who might still be under the snow. In this case, the scenario involved three people buried by the slide, including one real human that rescuers would have to locate.
A “hasty team” of four people was the first to ski down to the victims and went to work trying to identify potential risks to rescuers as well as locate anyone buried using an avalanche rescue transceiver and a Recco device — a detector that searches for reflectors potentially built into the clothing or equipment of a victim. Once a signal is picked up, the rescuers used their probe poles to check the immediate area for the victim’s exact location.
To simulate a more realistic scenario, rescuers arrived in phases to assist. Once the team was able to dig out the first two victims, they began searching for the live person, who wasn’t wearing a transceiver. Without that technological advantage, rescuers were forced to try alternatives.
Six team members formed a “probe line” an arm’s-length apart in the avalanche path, directly downhill from a visible overturned snowmobile, and began methodically working their way uphill poking into the snow for signs of a person. Rescuers said the job was tedious and tiring but that it could be effective with the right clues.
“We’re looking at this like a puzzle, and there’s evidence potentially out there,” said Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. “The snowmobile tells us the snowmobile rider probably isn’t way over there when the snowmobile is here. So we have something to start from, and we can now narrow down our search and use commonsense tactics to say, ‘Hey, let’s search in this area.’”
Meanwhile, Keena, a 4-year-old black Lab, went to work sniffing around the area. From the time she arrived and was let off her leash, it took Keena less than 2 minutes to start barking, digging and alerting rescuers that she’d found the victim.
“Just like beacons and the Recco device and a probe line, (dogs are) a tool that we have to solve a problem,” said Doug Lesch, Keena’s handler and member of Summit County Rescue Group. “The nice part about them is we can use them when we don’t have some of those other pieces of equipment that we like people to have when they’re in the backcountry.”
A full team of about a dozen rescuers began to dig the victim out, excavating a tunnel of snow around him, instead of just pulling him out, in case of traumatic injuries. Several teammates remained in the back of a “conveyor belt” formation to help clear snow away. Finally, he was placed on a vacuum mattress — essentially a full body splint — and towed away by a snowmobile.
While the exercise was just that, officials are hopeful it will help to emphasize the difficulties of finding a person alive in an avalanche, particularly in one of Colorado’s worst avalanche seasons in history. There have been 13 people buried in avalanches and 11 fatalities so far this season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, tying the season with 2012-13 as the second deadliest in state history.
“The hope is that this gets out there to educate people and further emphasize that you’ve got to be safe in the backcountry,” FitzSimons said. “And if you’re not capable in the backcountry, please just stay home.”
Despite avalanche conditions having improved of late, officials made it clear that later-season avalanches still can be dangerous.
“It’s been a pretty historically bad year in terms of our snowpack conditions and subsequently in terms of fatal avalanche accidents,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “The recent dry, really warm weather has helped to heal some of our really problematic weak layers over the last few weeks, but we are by no means out of the woods just yet.”
Lazar said snow over recent days and major storms expected over the weekend could create deadly avalanches and that the center’s avalanche danger forecast would be ramping up soon.
Officials urged anyone heading into the backcountry to always check the avalanche forecast, bring proper equipment and take the Colorado Backcountry Winter Safety Pledge.
“With more people hitting the backcountry, (it’s important to) acknowledge that and bring that information to the public in terms of that we are volunteer organizations that train a lot, that have a lot of time dedicated to what we love, which is helping our mountain communities,” said Martin Musi of Rocky Mountain Rescue. “At the same time, we ask the public to be responsible with their use of the terrain, because every time the pager goes off, dozens of families have to start waiting for their members to come home from a night of rescue. So whenever you’re recreating out there. it’s important to bear that in mind. …
“Make sure you’re not pushing the limit so far that you’re not going to be able to return by your own means.”
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