Summit County rescuers reflect on a year marked by avalanche tragedies
Ryan Summerlin September 16, 2013
For those in the rescue business, some years seem busier than others.
That has certainly been the case this year for the Summit County Rescue Group, which has, to date, responded to about 40 calls — considerably fewer than what’s expected in a typical year.
A dry winter played a significant role in the few calls the Summit County Rescue Group received this winter, but when the snows did finally arrive, it fell in bunches.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center warned of a deep, unstable snow layer for the entire winter, and many avalanches had been triggered in Summit County, but with no lethal consequences.
That all changed on April 18 and April 20, when Summit County Rescue Group responded to two avalanches in three days. Those slides resulted in six fatalities and launched a week Charles Pitman, public information officer for Summit County Rescue Group, said he would long remember.
The avalanches took place on Vail Pass and Loveland Pass, respectively, Pitman said. For the many rescuers working the Loveland Pass slide, it was fortunate that all of the people caught in the avalanche were wearing avalanche beacons, which is seldom the case.
These beacons greatly facilitated the rescue effort and Summit County Rescue Group personnel were able to locate several buried skiers, the deepest was recovered from a depth of 15 feet. Without the beacons, rescue efforts could have taken several days, Pitman said.
“The fatalities on Loveland Pass were particularly concerning, since the skiers and boarders were well versed in snow safety, had all of the proper safety equipment, and were doing their best to be safe,” Pitman said. “There is never a time to let down your guard and there are always lessons to be learned from such an incident. This was a serious tragedy that we hope to never see again.”
Summer rescues have also been few, Pitman said, but have resulted in rescues of critically injured patients. SCRG has come to the assistance of five mountain bikers this summer, including two accidents involving very experienced riders. Both resulted in serious neck and head injuries necessitating quick extraction.
The two patients were taken by Flight for Life to Denver area hospitals for further evaluation and treatment. Both are recovering.
Although technology has given backcountry travelers a means of providing family and friends with the ability to track their progress, many of the unofficial trails in Summit County, known as social trails, results in confusion for local and visiting hikers.
In July a hiker, deep in the Gore Range, triggered a SPOT beacon indicating some sort of emergency. Thanks to the owner of Slate Creek Ranch, rescue teams using ATVs were able to cut several miles off of the hike in and reached the hiker before his condition became life threatening.
“People need to be especially vigilant on their hike in, so as not to be thrown off on their return,” Pitman said. “Losing the trail in a thunderstorm, with temperatures dropping, even in the summer can result in a dangerous situation. Wet cotton t-shirts can be a significant contributor to hypothermia. I would say that summer backcountry day hikers are generally less well prepared than those in winter.”
Pitman suggests never going on a hike without rain gear, a flashlight and food, at an absolute minimum. A relatively minor injury requiring rescue group response can be a several hour affair.
“This isn’t like television, where we swoop down in a helicopter and pluck you to safety,” Pitman said. “Air transport is reserved for the truly severe and life threatening injuries.”
The Summit County Rescue Group is an all-volunteer, nonprofit search and rescue organization that responds to backcountry emergencies in all weather conditions and all times of the year. In 2012 they dedicated more than 3,500 hours to respond to calls for assistance, and more than 3,900 hours in training. SCRG depends on grants and donations for training, equipment and to cover expenses.
For more information or to donate, visit their website at www.scrg.org.
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