Summit County avalanche teams train for the upcoming season
Max’s first flight was a success. After the helicopter touched down, the 11-month-old Labrador retriever was lifted onto the ground, where he began what Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment director Matt Norfleet refers to as “the best game of hide-and-seek in the world.”
Max chased after a trainer who disappeared into the woods with a colorful toy. When he found her, he was rewarded with a game of tug-of-war.
“It’s the first drill of the season, so we’re keeping it simple,” Norfleet said. “It’s all about the praise, the reward and the fun.”
These exercises translate to the field, where rescuers are deployed to an avalanche scene, with the clock ticking as they search for individuals who may have been swept up in the slide. After the first hour, chances of survival decrease dramatically, as a crew consisting of an avalanche tech, a handler and a dog are airlifted to the site to begin their search.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, about 90 percent of people buried in an avalanche survive after the first 15 minutes, but only 50 percent survive after the first 30 minutes. By the two-hour mark, just 20 percent survive.
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With precious little time, speed and consistency are critical. So for the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD) training on Sept. 29 and 30, crews from across the county drilled the entire process, from first entering the helicopter to searching for survivors.
“It’s a high-stress and high-risk situation,” Norfleet said. “We try to train frequently just so our chances of success are higher.”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Each crew boarded and unloaded the helicopter in the same order, with each door, helmet, buckle and ski in place for maximum efficiency. Once they had been dropped off at the Copper Mountain parking lot, all kneeled as the helicopter took off again for the next crew, before breaking into action.
‘That’s what I like to see—the same thing every time,” flight nurse Peter Werlin said as he observed the unloading. “If they mess up the doors or leave a belt, it’s a big deal.”
While ski patrollers and search-and-rescue teams are required to have monthly trainings throughout the season, the two-day session was unique in that it was the first training before snowfall. Each avalanche team had the chance to practice deployments, as Flight For Life pilot John Peterson made round after round in the helicopter.
“The program is designed to get avalanche experts on the ground,” Werlin said, noting that both techs and handlers had the opportunity to train together at the time.
Throughout the winter and spring, CRAD members will call the Flight For Life headquarters in Denver and let them know how many dog teams are available each day. Once an avalanche is reported, the sheriff is notified to request SAR and avalanche deployment.
At that time, the closest available aircraft will pick up the avalanche team, where they are dropped of at the site of the avalanche if the terrain is deemed stable. They’ll bring a tech, who carries a shovel, a beacon and RECCO equipment — a radar-based system used to locate avalanche victims that can pick up on electronics or reflectors embedded into snow gear. Meanwhile, a handler will work with a rescue dog to catch the scent of anyone who may have been buried beneath the snow.
If a survivor is found, the helicopter is sent out again with a flight nurse, and the patient is extricated and treated. The avalanche team is often responsible for getting down the mountain, with enough gear to survive overnight, if needed.
“If we’re able to either get a person to safety and extricate them, it’s a great feeling,” Norfleet added. “If it’s a fatality, we’re able to get closure to the scene, and eliminate the need for further resources out in the field.”
While having a beacon and a RECCO chip embedded into equipment will help the chances of being found, in some cases, the dogs may sniff out a victim first. In another case, Werlin said they spotted a survivor from the helicopter after a 550-foot slide on Lenawee Ridge.
“A tech happened to see an arm poking out of the ground as they flew over,” Werlin said. “By absolute pure luck, John flew over the top of her.”
The training is just as critical for the rescuers on the other end of the leash, most of whom go through at least two years of training to gain their CRAD certification.
“We’re getting the dogs reacquainted with the fact that it’s time to work,” said Hunter Mortenson, with both CRAD and Summit County Search and Rescue. “All of these dogs are way happier to be working.”
After each helicopter ride, the dogs are trained to search on command for a volunteer hiding in the woods, creating a sense of play associated with the helicopter. While the younger, less experienced dogs needed to be “hyped up” for the search, those with years of experience sprinted immediately into the forest.
“It doesn’t take long. They do it once, twice, and they know it’s how they’re gonna play the game,” Copper Mountain Ski Patrol supervisor Janie Merickel said. “This is a dangerous thing. The more you practice a dangerous thing, the better for everyone involved.”
Training is key for the rescue dogs, but selecting the right pup is also a piece of the puzzle. Jake Hutchinson, American Avalanche Institute certified instructor, said he looks for a dog with the drive, curiosity and bravery to do the job.
“If it’s a tough job, you need a tough dog,” Hutchinson said. “If a puppy at six weeks will play tug with me, good. If it will take the toy away and shake it, great. If I throw pots and pans down on the ground, will it come investigate?”
The preseason training is just one of many steps to gear up for ski season. While the avalanche teams got better acquainted with each other, the dogs napped after a hard day of work.
“It’s really rewarding working with the dog,” Norfleet said. “It’s a special bond.”
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