Big drill, big thrill for the ski patrol at Highlands
Rick Bennett took the day off Tuesday so he could be buried under several feet of snow and suffer various broken bones and bodily injuries.
But he was better off than Jay DeLine, who came to Aspen Highlands to be a dead guy.
Fortunately Bennett wasn’t really hurt and DeLine wasn’t really dead. But they played critical roles in an avalanche disaster drill used to sharpen the skills of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol. A handful of patrollers from Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Snowmass also took part.
Bennett and DeLine were among four volunteers who were buried under three to six feet of snow in Highland Bowl. Snow caves were dug in advance on Monday, then the volunteers were placed in the cavities. The openings were covered and made undetectable from the surface Tuesday just as the sun hit the slopes of the bowl at about 8:45 a.m.
Along with the four live victims, organizers buried six packs that signified dead victims in the make-believe slide.
All 10 “victims” were buried at different spots down the slope from the steepest pitches in Highland Bowl, where the expert trails start to taper together. Organizers planted poles and skis in the debris zone, sometimes signifying a clue to where a victim was buried, sometimes as a decoy.
None of the four live victims was outfitted for the drill with an avalanche beacon, which sends a signal that can be picked up by rescuers on the surface. (In reality, the victims had beacons they could easily switch on if trouble arose, and they were in radio contact every five minutes with patrol members who were running the drill.)
Some of the six dead victims had beacons that were transmitting, others did not.
The circumstances were designed to be confusing and complicated, just as patrol members would encounter if such an event ever occurred.
“This is probably the biggest training I’ve ever seen us do on the hill during the season,” said Kevin Heineken, director of snow safety for the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol and an organizer of the drill.
“It keeps us sharp, and it keeps us able to do the smaller things,” he said. “It’s pulling together all the smaller training that we did all year.”
Shortly after Bennett, DeLine and the other victims were put in place, the call went out that hopefully will never really be heard – an avalanche had hit the slopes.
Two “hasty teams” of two patrollers each scrambled to make a first assessment and began monitoring for beacon signals. Then two avalanche dogs stationed at Highlands, Chase and Recco, and their handlers went in, along with Bubba, one of the avalanche dogs from Snowmass.
The dog teams divided the slope into thirds and worked their way down. The dogs are trained to let their handlers know when they pick up human scent, and they soon pinpointed where the four victims were buried.
A flag was planted where the dogs indicated, then additional teams of patrollers were assigned to each of the spots. Some started controlled but speedy digging while others worked patterns with probe poles that reached several feet underground.
Eventually between 40 and 45 patrollers and volunteers were toiling in clusters while radios cackled with orders from a patroller established as the incident commander, a sort of on-field general.
As the live victims were dug out, their injuries were detailed via radio and preparations made for treatment. DBS Helicopters, which has offices in the Roaring Fork Valley, added a touch of realism by swooping into the valley and landing on a flat spot at the bottom of the bowl.
The injured skiers were loaded for dispatch to local hospitals. DeLine didn’t make it, in his make-believe role, due to massive head trauma.
“I had injuries incompatible with life,” he said.
Bennett got by with broken leg bones and abdominal injuries. He was uncovered 23 minutes after the avalanche call went out but had been underground an additional 10 minutes while preparations were made. DeLine was in the ground even longer.
Neither man said they had any qualms about playing their role. It was like going into a snow fort as a cave, said Bennett, an electrician whose boss gave him the day off for the drill.
“The biggest anticipation was whether the roof was going to come down on you,” said Bennett.
DeLine said he could hear rescuers working around him on the surface for about 15 minutes. He finally saw probe poles coming through the ceiling of his cavity, so he turned onto his stomach and tried to protect his head from jabs.
DeLine, a worker at the Highlands race department, was pressed into service as a backup burial victim.
“One guy backed out when he stuck his head inside the cave,” explained Heineken. “We brought some extras because we expected some hesitancy.”
The large size of the snow caves and the porousness of the snow allowed air to flow to the victims. The longest one was buried about 50 minutes.
The teams took their tasks very seriously and raced to get the victims unburied and the live ones treated as soon as possible. No one took it more seriously then the dogs.
“She did good but she got tired,” patroller Lori Spence said of her dog, Chase. The drill was longer than the exercises she normally does to keep the 6-year-old dog sharp.
Once the work was done, Spence pulled a rope toy out of her pack and Chase was literally jumping in circles for a chance to play. The rope toy is the reward at the end of work.
“She knows she’s going to go on a search when it goes into the pack,” Spence said.
An operation that would typically take six to eight hours was condensed down to about two hours, but still served as great practice, said Heineken. The significance of the drill wasn’t that it was in Highland Bowl, but that it was on a scale that allowed several patrollers to participate and prepare for smaller, more isolated incidents, he said.
An exercise of that scale, said Highlands patrol director Mac Smith, gives patrollers confidence to deal with life-threatening incidents that arise.
“That’s probably the reward of what we do,” he said.
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