Avalanche pros pow-wow at Leadville workshop

A huge turnout at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Leadville.

Communication, organization the key to successful rescues; smart phone technology helping pinpoint victims in some recent missions

By Bob Berwyn

LEADVILLE — Good organization and communication are the keys to successful avalanche rescues, experts said Friday morning during the first few presentations at the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, discussing a couple of recent missions as case studies.

Summit County search and rescue veterans Dan Burnett and Aaron Parment said a series of linked decisions last May during a tricky rescue on Peak One, high above Frisco, enabled the rescue teams to move an injured snowboarder to a spot where a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter could ultimate evacuate him just before darkness.

Even though it was too windy earlier in the day for a helicopter rescue, mission coordinators stayed in touch with the choppers. When the wind died right around sunset, all the pieces were in place for a quick airlift, Burnett said.

The avalanche happened about three miles into the backcountry, and the rescue teams had to carefully evaluate the spring snow conditions to decide how best to reach the snowboarder, who suffered an open tib-fib fracture in the snow slide. In spring weather, the snow often can’t support the weight of snowmobiles, but quick temperature measurements near the staging area helped the teams decide that they could advance at least part way up the mountain with the help of the snowmobiles.

At the same time, the injured party’s partner was able to help the victim move down the hill several hundred feet to meet the rescue teams part way, key to the aerial evacuation. Rescuers were also concerned about the potential for additional avalanches from above, but advance teams arriving at the scene were able to establish a staging area on a knob deemed to be somewhat protected from the avalanche “hangfire” above.

Burnett also described how emerging smart phone technology has helped the Summit County Rescue Group on several occasions this past year. In some cases, rescuers have instructed injured hikers via telephone calls how to download a GPS app that then helps pinpoint their location. In other cases, rescuers have asked injured backcountry travelers to take pictures of their surroundings and send them via their phones, also to help pinpoint rescue locations.

Boulder Mountain, B.C.

Canadian avalanche expert Brad White described the near-chaos at the scene of avalanche in the backcountry near Revelstoke last spring, when 60 to 70 snowmobiles were hit by a massive slide off Turbo Peak as they participated in an informal snowmobile event. An extreme avalanche warning was in effect for the area that day, which reduced the number of people attending the popular rally. But there were still at least 200 people in the area when the avalanche was triggered by a snowmobiler high-marking on Turbo Mountain.

Two people died, including the snowmobiler who triggered the slide high on the face, and about 60 to 70 snowmobilers were hit by the wall of snow. Many of them were watching the activities from the base of the slope, probably believing they were in a safe area.

The resulting rescue required a full mobilization of emergency resources in the area, with guides from several heli-ski operations playing a huge role, White said. Coordinating the rescue workers from several different entities was one challenge; trying get everybody to switch their beacons to search mode at the same time proved futile, White said, describing one of the biggest potential problems with a mass avalanche burial scenario involving dozens of victims and rescuers.

Additionally, at least 15 people activated Spot beacons, which transmit GPS coordinates to an emergency services switchboard. White said the multiple signals added to the confusion.

The rescue ended up costing more than $2 million dollars.

“Many of those people failed to realize they were in harms way …  We need to work on snowmobilers’ behavior in avalanche terrain,” White said, adding that about half of Canada’s avalanche fatalities are snowmobilers.

“It’s not that they’re not wearing beacons … They’re lacking a recognition of how to approach avalanche terrain so that not so many people are exposed at once. The real challenge is to try to get limited exposure at one time … We need to do more work on companion rescue with snowmobilers,” he concluded.


6 thoughts on “Avalanche pros pow-wow at Leadville workshop

  1. thanks for the coverage. did you stay for mark beardsley from the breck patrol? work kept me from attending this year. mk

    1. Hi Matt, sorry I left just before Mark’s talk, but I covered the dust-on-snow stuff – super interesting. Maybe I can follow up with Mark in person to hear about the near-surface faceting. That was a big theme today.

  2. Bob, I’d read your avalanche stories before, and this one gives an even more graphic picture of the challenges. The bit about having victims use smart phones to send GPS and photos of the accident site will stay with me. So will the thought of having a fractured tib-fib and hoping the rescuers can get there. Maybe this coverage will spur funding for more public education about recognizing where it’s safe to ski. Education would surely cost less than the $2M it can cost for one resuce–not to mention the human suffering. You’ve shown that Summit County rescuers and writers and videographers are as knowledgeable about this as anyone is.

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