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Record Avalanche Season Keeps Search-and-Rescue Volunteers Busy

Dale Atkins (in blue) directing team members during an avalanche rescue training.
Dale Atkins (in blue) directing team members during an avalanche rescue training.
Dale Atkins
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Since 2010, 97 people have been buried by avalanches in Colorado; 71 of them died. This winter, of the 19 people who have been caught in avalanches in this state, 12 have died — making this a record season for avalanche deaths. Those stats only go through March 23, though, and the recent snows have aggravated an already extreme avalanche season.

Dale Atkins, a Colorado native, is closing in on fifty years of volunteer service for Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team (ART); he says this has been one of the busiest seasons in memory.

According to Atkins, 90 percent of the people who are buried in an avalanche survive if they're found within fifteen minutes. At thirty minutes, the survival rate drops to 50 percent; at 45 minutes, it's 30 percent. Fewer than 5 percent of the individuals who are buried more than a few hours make it. “I’ve been on almost forty missions where we’ve had to dig someone out who had been buried in an avalanche,” Atkins says, “and I still have not been on a mission where we’ve recovered a buried person alive. Time is the enemy of the buried avalanche person.”

Atkins was first called to an avalanche site when he was a teenager; the slope was near Georgetown, and he remembers thinking that it didn't look like a killer — but this slide was. “The problem with snow is that it all looks the same, but it can behave very differently when it comes to avalanche accidents,” Atkins explains. That was the start of his volunteer career.

Search-and-rescue teams across the state are always looking for more volunteers, but they need funding, too. The teams pay their own way to the site, and are also in charge of buying and keeping up with their own gear — often more than $1,000 worth of equipment per pack — and covering their own workers' compensation insurance, which accounts for about half of a team's annual budget. Thanks to the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund, about 25 percent of the cost of every hunting and fishing license and off-road vehicle fee goes into a fund available to the search and rescue community; additional funding comes from the counties that the teams service, and the remainder comes from grants and other fundraising efforts.

Search teams today have at least four members with varying abilities; the real strength of the team comes from the years of collective experience each person brings to it. “We may not look fast,” Atkins says, "but we’re really good at going and going and going, and we know what to do.”

This past Valentine's Day, for example, ART was sent to Mount Trelease near Loveland Pass. "In this situation, the avalanche was not witnessed," Atkins recalls. "No one called for help, nor was there anyone known to be missing, but there was a ski track covered in debris. Some nearby skiers came across the avalanche and ski tracks and thought the situation to be peculiar. They called 911." And that was the right thing to do.

Atkins had been walking his dog when the call came in to the team, and he started packing. "Get home, make two sandwiches, grab radios, load skis, boots, poles, pack, etc. into my truck — take a deep breath — and then head toward the east side of Loveland Pass, about an hour away," he relates. By ten that morning, he'd arrived at "operations," where he was briefed before going into the field.

The first goal is to locate the victim fast, and it helps "for people to be searchable," Atkins says. "You need to have the transceivers and reflective devices. When people are searchable, we can locate them quickly.” In this situation, the victim had already been found through some clever detective work by the Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office and Dispatch Center, along with an ART mission coordinator; they were able to collect enough information to determine what might have happened and communicated that, along with a possible location, to the three skiers already on the mountain. They dug out the victim and tried to resuscitate him.

Dale Atkins plays a "subject" in the toboggan during avalanche rescue training.
Dale Atkins plays a "subject" in the toboggan during avalanche rescue training.
Dale Atkins

In the meantime, Atkins's plan was to get to the victim as quickly as possible, dragging a specialized rescue toboggan to the scene, which was up a steep incline. By the time he and the rest of the team arrived, though, it was clear that the victim could not be revived, and they secured the body on the toboggan and headed down the hill.

Almost four hours after the first call was made, a snowmobile towed the toboggan back to operations and the process of “demobilizing” began: packing up gear while "a couple of ART public information officers do TV interviews for Denver TV stations. Later, a family member arrives to start dealing with what has happened to their loved one," Atkins recalls. The victim was 57-year-old David Heide, who was snowboarding in the area alone when the avalanche occurred.

"Mountain rescue, specifically when it comes to avalanche rescue, is labor- and time-intensive," Atkins notes. "All told, forty-plus people from about six different agencies were involved in this avalanche SAR operation. CDOT plow drivers were able to block the exit, which made it safe for us to move about and get ready. Flight for Life was on standby and ready to help, but just enough clouds hung on the high peaks to keep their helicopters on the ground. Loveland Ski Area provided a half-dozen ski patrollers whose intimate knowledge of Mount Trelease, along with their skills and abilities, were a huge help in getting to the site and back down. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center's three forecasters who came were a terrific help as they assessed the residual dangers and risk. Although only about six ART members made it to the accident site, the other two dozen were plenty busy. It was the combination of everyone’s efforts that made the recovery possible."

Over the years, technology has made the search-and-rescue job easier. “Cell phones have saved more lives of people who are distressed in the mountains than any other piece of technology,” Atkins notes. “But a cell phone won’t keep you warm and dry. It won’t keep you fed. It won’t keep you energized. Just because you have a cell phone, you have to travel as if you don’t.”

In addition to an efficient communications system, Atkins says that anyone in the backcountry also needs a light, a signaling device, a fire starter, warm clothes, a pocketknife, shelter, water and food, a first-aid kit and a navigation system. Rescuers carry well-equipped packs, too, including supplies in case they need to spend the night on the mountain. “Not comfortably, but not in a survival mode, either," Atkins says.

And Colorado's search-and-rescue teams know that they could be going out many more times over the next few months, because avalanche season is far from over. And even when avalanche season finally ends, summer will bring a slew of other search-and-rescue missions.

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