Winter Park patrollers stay on the cutting edge of avalanche rescue with C-RAD
March 3, 2019
Most workdays Winter Park Ski Patrollers and avalanche dog handlers Rico LaRocca and Nate Bash are like any other patrollers.
On special occasions though, when called upon by the powers that be, Bash or LaRocca will take to the skies above Grand County with their avalanche dogs and an avalanche technician in a Flight for Life helicopter as part of a rapid avalanche deployment team. In a situation where every second is precious rapid avalanche deployment teams race to recuse, or at least recover, those who have been swept away by snow and ice.
The teams, sometimes called immediate search teams or hasty teams, are trained for their dangerous rescue work through a nonprofit organization called Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, or C-RAD. Born out of the deadly 1987 Peak 7 avalanche near Breckenridge that killed four C-RAD provides training and certification for hasty teams across Colorado's High Country.
Winter Park Resort has been a part of C-RAD for the past two seasons. It was a natural outgrowth for LaRocca and Bash who founded Winter Park Ski Patrol's avalanche dog program four years ago. Their initiation into the world of avalanche dogs was made possible through the help of local citizen and Grand County Search and Rescue volunteer Jane Mather. Mather was the longtime handler of Grand County Search and Rescue Dog Taz, whose eponymous Razzmataz trail can be found at Winter Park Resort.
"Jane was kind enough to train us on our days off," LaRocca said. "We would go up to Berthoud Pass or somewhere else where the snow was deep enough. She showed us how to train the dogs."
The two men and their canine companions went on to take formal training courses, part of a continuous and still ongoing process of education, training and practice. Initially Bash and LaRocca took their avalanche dogs, a border collie named Charlotte and a since retired black lab named Nuggit, to the resort two days a week. Once the program was established though they began looking into specialized training for rapid deployments.
"We went to Utah to the oldest school in the country, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue," Bash said. "C-RAD threw us into a test. We passed and got thrown onto the crew."
Not long after getting C-RAD certified LaRocca made the difficult decision to retire his now 10-year-old lab Nuggit after the dog blew his knee out. While Nuggit still lives with LaRocca the Michigan native has a new avalanche dog. Biskit, a 16 month old female border collie that is on the way to, but not yet, C-RAD certified.
One unique element within the C-RAD program is that hasty teams like the ones Bash and LaRocca serve on also serve as flight crews on the Flight for Life helicopters they ride.
"That is the most unique thing about this," Bash said. "They drop off the nurse and paramedic. We become the flight crew. No other group does that."
The need to serve as flight crews on the helicopters creates additional layers of training and certification that must be completed for a patroller to be certified for deployment.
"When a call goes out Flight (for Life) will look to find the nearest team," explained Bash, who along with LaRocca has spent almost a decade now working as a Winter Park Ski Patroller. "Whichever team is closest to that heli, they will go to first."
The helicopters that ferry the avalanche teams into the field are stationed at St. Anthony's in Frisco or St. Anthony's in Lakewood prior to deployment. According to Bash the geographic location of those two hospitals means that avalanche teams from A-Basin tend to receive the most calls for a rapid deployment. Bash noted that the Winter Park avalanche teams are the northernmost teams available for rapid deployment.
If the avalanche teams from Winter Park receive a deployment call and the mountain's safety officials approve it the patrol team at the resort must begin preparations for a helicopter landing. Winter Park Resort has 12 helicopter landing zones mapped out throughout the resort through only three of them see use including locations near the base area and near Mary Jane’s middle parking lots.
While a helicopter is enroute the team members gather their already prepared gear, including overnight equipment. If a team is deployed into the field the helicopter may or may not be able to bring them back so hasty team members must be ready to ski out or spend the night in the field.
After loading the helicopter and flying to the scene the team members and pilot assess the situation. They are looking for signs of lingering danger that might cause them to abandon their missions.
"We flew to Jones Pass a few days before Christmas," Bash said. "There was a big nasty slide path and a lot of danger still with hangfire. We flew around as much as we wanted to get a bird's eye view. We couldn't find any credible evidence that made us want to go in."
Rather than landing anywhere near the still dangerous slide path the helicopter landed near the bottom of Jones Pass and the avalanche tech with Bash was able to interview people at the scene and found no one reporting a missing companion.
"The heli gives us a really unique opportunity to survey the scene," Bash said.
There are nine members of the Winter Park Ski Patrol who are also certified C-RAD team members. Along with Bash and LaRocca patrollers Mike Schneider, Brian Roman, Matt Rotroff, Brett Macalady, Alex Scholtz, Chris Cameron and Austin Foote are also C-RAD certified. In the two years that Winter Park Resort has had C-RAD certified patrollers they have received only one call for response.
"We train to the highest standard," LaRocca said. "We are ready to go at all times but we hope we never have to."
Bash and LaRocca are the only dog handlers from Winter Park Resort. The other team members are all avalanche technicians.
"The tech does everything," Bash said, referencing the significantly higher number of duties avalanche techs must attend to compared to dog handlers. LaRocca concurred.
"Their job is twice as hard," he said. "My job as a handler is to protect the dog. Follow their alerts, keep them safe and get them in and out of the scene. The tech handles every other decision. It is someone you really have to trust with your life."