Companion rescue — a matter of life and death
Any day on Berthoud Pass you can see skiers and boarders heading into the backcountry for some turns in the freshies. It’s fun, exciting and … free! Piece of cake. Drive to Berthoud, hook up with some friends, maybe leave a car at one of the switchbacks, hike up, ski down. Repeat. What could go wrong?
A few years ago I spent some hours on the Pass with my avalanche beacon set on receive and took a few notes. Pretty interesting how many people are not carrying a pack, not carrying a probe or shovel or beacon.
Every year people are killed in avalanches. Colorado leads the pack with 64 fatalities in the last 10 years. Of those 64, the majority were either backcountry riders or snowmobilers. If you are buried in an avalanche and your companions can find you and dig you out within 10 minutes, your chance of survival is pretty good – about 90 percent.
Survivability goes down fast. After just 20 minutes your odds are less than 50/50. These stats take into account the other little problems you might have — like being shredded by trees, launched over a cliff or twisted into a pretzel. Most avalanche deaths are the result of asphyxiation; the balance are from trauma.
Beacon, probe and shovel. Three pieces of equipment that you should never venture into avalanche terrain without. Without these tools companion rescue is difficult, if not impossible. Ever tried to locate a person who is buried 3 feet deep in a snowfield? And then try and dig him out with a ski tip or snowboard?
In my career with Grand County Search and Rescue I have been involved with 11 avalanche fatalities, most of them on Berthoud Pass. I can state with authority that none of those fatalities involved an individual or group that had beacons, probes and shovels and took standard avalanche precautions. I have been involved with a number of incidents where proper precautions were taken – those people are alive.
In avalanche terrain your only real hope of surviving a burial rests with your companions. If you don’t have a beacon on, and your buds don’t have a probe and shovel (everybody needs to have all three) you are probably going to die.
Sorry to be so blunt. Don’t count on Search and Rescue to save you. Our average response time to an avalanche in the Berthoud backcountry is somewhere north of two hours.
Beacon, probe and shovel. Three things you shouldn’t be without whether you are a skier or boarder, snowmobiler or snowshoer, in avalanche terrain. Of course the ability to use these tools quickly and efficiently is mandatory. But there is something else. I mentioned avalanche precautions as a lifesaver.
What precautions can you take to avoid being caught in an avalanche? There are many, more than I can describe today. Basically, avoidance is key. Would you step out in front of a moving bus? Or drive down I-70 on Sunday afternoon if you could wait until Monday morning?
If you could learn how to avoid avalanche terrain and how to mitigate the risks involved with recreating on the steeps you will have increased your odds of enjoying the backcountry safely. This is the fourth tool that you need to carry with you – knowledge and experience. Take an avalanche safety class and learn how to recognize avalanche terrain. Be aware of the avalanche danger by checking the Colorado Avalanche Information Center – you can get their App for your phone. Practice with your avalanche safety tools. Travel with experienced partners and learn from them.
We do not want to discourage backcountry use; that’s why we all live here. We do want to encourage backcountry safety – it’s not that hard to play smart.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR. Mountain Rescue is a new feature that will appear in the Sky-Hi News on the first and third Wednesday of each month.
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Due to current public health guidance, there will not be an in-person wilderness campsite lottery for Rocky Mountain National Park this year.