Thursday was a busy day on Vail Pass as crews from nearly a dozen different emergency response agencies gathered to practice joint search and rescue drills in a display of cooperative rescue tactics, as well as education for the public.
“Part of this is an awareness campaign, part of it is also an opportunity to work together,” Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said Thursday from the popular backcountry area. “Accidents don’t recognize county lines. … We have to work with our partners and these are the ones with matching skill sets, so it’s a good opportunity to get to know each other.”
Along with van Beek and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office were a large and diverse group of response agencies from all across the state, including sheriffs from Summit, Rio Blanco and Clear Creek counties.
Members of Vail Mountain Rescue Group, Summit County Rescue Group, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Alpine Rescue Team, Lake County Search and Rescue, Douglas County Search and Rescue, Mountain Rescue Association and Colorado Avalanche Information Center were all in attendance, among others.
A day of voluntary exercises
The crews were out in the snow well into the afternoon, mixing groups and rehearsing rescue scenarios.
Fellow crew members and media spectated as groups went through full rescue simulations, showing everything from interviewing witnesses to beacon search, running probe lines, shoveling rotations, victim extraction and debriefing. They even deployed a Summit County Rescue Group avalanche dog, Keena, to help find a buried victim.
Unbridled are the efforts of these selfless men and women. Most, if not all of the rescue team members do this on a voluntary basis. They do the exercises as volunteers, and they venture into dangerous situations to rescue and recover others, all without collecting a paycheck.
“They’re volunteer groups, and these people dedicate their personal time and put their jobs aside to help people,” van Beek said.
Furthermore, many of these volunteers endure stressful and tragic situations that can leave mental scars.
“When it comes to professional rescue, we tend not to find people alive,” said Dale Atkins, technical specialist for the Alpine Rescue Team, taking note of the time that passes between when an avalanche occurs and when the rescue groups get the call. “But we keep trying. Because we know that even though the statistics are not in the favor of survival of a buried avalanche victim, that there are some lucky victims that do survive.”
Recognizing a deadly winter and preparing for spring
Brian Lazar, the deputy director of CAIC, made opening statements Thursday about a deadly avalanche season that has claimed 11 lives in Colorado, including four beloved Eagle County locals.
“It’s been a historically bad year,” Lazar said. He also warned that despite a mostly dry and warm winter, “we are, by no means, out of the woods just yet.”
Lazar talked about the incoming storm system that is expected to bring high amounts of snow to Eagle County through Wednesday, and the numerous concerns associated with these larger storms.
“The main one that’s on our radar is going to be avalanches that are going to be breaking in the accumulating and drifting storm snow. We’re going to see enough snow to make avalanches in the storm snow [that are] big enough to be deadly all by themselves,” he said.
Lazar reinforced that staying up to date on the CAIC forecast is crucial in avoiding dangerous situations, as those conditions can change quickly.
“While we’re in these dynamic conditions, make sure you check the current forecast,” Lazar said.
As of Saturday, the CAIC forecast for Vail and Summit County currently shows moderate level 2 conditions that will be raised on Sunday to a high level 4 for areas above and near treeline, and a considerable level 3 for below treeline.
Tips for spring in the backcountry
As the local rescue groups brace for spring, the public is reminded that the best way to stay safe is to make smart decisions.
“Make common sense decisions and know the area you’re going into,” van Beek said.
“Look at what the avalanche danger is, know what do to, go with someone who knows the backcountry and who can actually read it. Carry transponders, shovels, probes and all the gear that will give you every single opportunity to survive, and don’t go beyond your ability.”
Though experience and knowledge doesn’t guarantee survival, the groups agree that the increased education and awareness has already helped prevent additional tragedies this winter.
“I think most people understand that it really is risky out there,” Andy Linger, of Vail Mountain Rescue Group, said. “There’s plenty of stuff to do in flat and rolling terrain. It’s a great time to go out for a ski tour, but it’s not a good time to go out and ski big lines.”
Linger also stressed the emphasis on personal responsibility and smart decision-making for backcountry explorers this spring.
“Pay attention to the avalanche danger and stay within your limits, because once you leave that highway, your life depends on you,” he said.
This content was originally published here.