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The rescue

As soon as the snow stopped sliding, the guide jumped off the avalanche crown without hesitation and slid down the bed surface of the avalanche to the debris pile. He had immediately turned his avalanche beacon from transmit to receive and had instructed everyone else to do the same. The guide would not send anyone for help because everyone on the surface would be needed to dig people out.The scene was safe. All of the surrounding slopes had slid. As the guide was sliding down the slope, he pulled out his radio and contacted base to tell them his location, to request immediate help from all nearby skiing lodges and to check the availability of rescue helicopters.When the guide and other rescuers got to the debris pile, they knew every second counted. People were dying under the snow. Textbooks will give you different times for survival when buried under the snow. Some avalanche victims have died in less then five minutes, choking to death on the snow and ice that plugged their airways.Thirteen people were buried, and the beacons were sending out signals in all directions. A crude form of triage was made. Victims who were partially buried but still had an open airway were left in place as the rescuers started searching for those under the snow. Shovels and probe poles were pulled out and assembled.Toward the end of level one avalanche classes, we do mock avalanche rescue scenarios. Everyone is prepped beforehand and, even in these scenarios, the cluster effect abounds. Confusion reigns even when trained rescuers practice these scenarios. I cannot imagine the chaos of being on the scene of an avalanche where 13 people are buried. The rescuers soon found a lot of their rescue equipment was inadequate. Probes bent and broke and the same was true with shovels trying to dig through the concrete-like debris. Many of the beacons used had a safety feature built in that, after a certain number of minutes, would switch back to transmit. When that happened, you would have rescuers searching for rescuers on top of the snow. If not for what was happening under the snow, it would be comical. I’ve had this happen to me in practice scenarios and had to refrain from using harsh language.The rescuers did not have to worry about looking for tracks of people leaving the avalanche area. More than one avalanche victim that was severely injured left the avalanche scene and died in the woods before rescuers could find them. In this case, all victims were right under their feet.This past fall at the International Snow Science Workshop in Telluride, there was a class for avalanche professionals outlining how to dig in avalanche debris. These are people who make a living out of digging in the snow. It may seem like a simple job, but it’s not.You first have to chop with your shovel and then dig out the snow. Prying with your shovel will not work and will most likely break your shovel. Young, strong men cannot dig in avalanche debris for victims deeper than five feet fast enough to save their lives.Some of the guide’s party were deeper than seven feet.It takes a lot of practice with beacons to become efficient and fast with them. Mountain Rescue Aspen offers free beacon training the first Tuesday of the month and the last Wednesday until April at Rio Grande Park. On Aspen Mountain, behind the Gondola, there’s a beacon practice area. If the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol members are not busy, they are more than willing to help people with their beacon practice.If the only time you are practicing with your beacon is when you meet your guide or friends to go skiing, that could be a mistake someone in your party could pay for dearly.The guide and the other rescuers did save lives that day. They dug people from under the snow, cleared airways, performed CPR. and treated for hypothermia. Some people were not so fortunate.When talking to my friend Richard about the rescue, Richard said, “Make sure to stress all of the elements of a good rescue, and stress that the rescue should have never happened in the first place.”By learning about how weather cycles affect snowpack, watching your slope angles and taking a conservative approach, the rescue should not happen. It should be a skill you possess but hopefully never have to use.Ron can be reached at ronlrash@aol.com. Ron is a local mountain guide. The first time Ron was on a real probe line was in 1987 at the bottom of Sodbuster. Fortunately, the possible victims were in a bar downtown.


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