Rescuers train for skiers’ nightmare
January 13, 1994
Steamboat Springs — For backcountry skiers, it is a nightmare.
There is a rumble from above and a white wall of snow comes crashing down all around you – it's an avalanche.
"Most avalanche victims (those that survive) are found by someone who was with them when the snow collapsed." said Ted Bennet, a member of Vail Search and Rescue team.
Bennet traveled to Steamboat for a chance to work with his search dogs in a training session sponsored by Routt County Search and Rescue on Sunday. The training session prepared search and rescue in search techniques using dogs, Pieps and in line probe training.
The training stresses the importance of time to the students. Once trapped under the wall of snow, time becomes of the greatest importance to the victim. As each minute ticks from the clock, the chances of finding someone trapped under the frigid surface decreases quickly.
In most cases , by the time search and rescue teams have arrived – it is too late.
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On Sunday morning the avalanche victims were search and rescue members who were buried in carefully dug pits at the top of Buffalo Pass. The pits were just big enough to hide a practice victim from the eyes and ears of the search and rescue dogs. The victims were buried five minutes before the dogs were released for the search. The trainers waited a few minutes to allow the scent to travel to the surface of the snow.
Waiting for the dogs to find the pits and rescue the practice victims can make for some uncomfortable moments for search and rescue volunteers under the snow.
The outside world, and most of the light and sound are buffered by only a few feet of snow surrounding the pit.
It is easy to imagine the panic an avalanche victim might feel as the make believe victim waits for the dog to dig his way through the snow covering the pit entrance. However , the practice victim is comforted by the fact that just a few feet away on the surface, a team member is watching over the pit to make certain nothing goes wrong. A comfort most real-life victims don't enjoy.
After about 15 minutes lying beneath the snow, the sound of the dog's paws digging through the snow is welcome. The dog quickly breaks through the snow covering. The game is over.
The game is fun for the dog, but for the dogs' trainer the game is very serious.
"Dogs are one of the fastest ways to find avalanche victims," trainer Ted Bennet said. "But, in most cases, by the time dogs are called in it is usually to late for the victims."
Pieps training, the next part of Sunday's class, helped search team members practice the fastest way to find avalanche victims.
The personal beacon devices generate a signal which can help other skiers, snowmobilers or search team members locate victims quickly after an avalanche.
With a flick of a switch the $200 device can either signal rescuers or help detect victims buried beneath the snow. The biggest advantage of the Pieps is biggest that anyone taking advantage of the backcountry can carry one. If an avalanche occurs, a member of the party who was not caught up in the snow slide, can begin searching for victims.
The final part of the class was the line probe. Rescuers use long poles and patterns to search beneath the surface of the snow. This method is usually used to locate bodies, but in some rare cases it helps to locate survivors.
Bennet said one of the best ways to survive an avalanche is to avoid it in the first place. Knowing the snow conditions, prevailing weather and the area's history can help all backcountry enthusiasts avoid a bad situation. Steamboat Search and Rescue member John Witte recommends that anyone thinking about heading into the backcountry should carry some sort of radio detection device.