Double-dose of avalanches means winter’s still here
The work of the Summit County Rescue Group never stops in the mountains — just like winter weather. Avalanches continue to slide throughout the county, posing danger to recreationists.
Last weekend’s snowfall led to a spike in avalanche reports, Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene said Thursday.
A skier triggered an avalanche Wednesday, May 25, in the 4th of July Bowl on Peak 10. The avalanche was reported to Colorado Avalanche Information Center by a friend of the skier involved, Greene and Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said. It was a soft slab avalanche that was likely too small to kill an individual, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report.
The second avalanche Wednesday occurred on Peak 1. It was not reported to emergency dispatch services or the avalanche center, but the news was relayed directly to the Summit County Rescue Group mission coordinator.
Neither avalanche harmed anyone.
Greene said snow in late May, like any other time of year, leads to an increase in avalanche risk. Those venturing into the backcountry should continue to use caution, and watch for avalanches.
Summit County Rescue Group by the numbers
Counting both calls Wednesday, Summit County Search and Rescue has received 18 avalanche calls so far this season. Through May 25, the group has received 70 total dispatch calls in 2022 according to its log. Those calls range from missing persons to avalanches with people possibly involved.
The group responded to 217 total calls in 2021, 77 of which were all-call operations, which means all available rescuers are paged and asked to report to a trailhead or staging area. That number is on a bit of a decline, DeBattiste said. Rescue technology like drones with infrared cameras and basic find-my-phone features have reduced the need for all-call operations.
DeBattiste identified a few hot spots for calls. Quandary, Buffalo, Spruce Creek, Cataract Lake and Boreas Pass all tend to have the most call volumes. The trails are all heavily trafficked, and DeBattiste said traffic and call volume go hand in hand. A mission coordinator can talk most hikers in distress out of the area, DeBattiste said, so no response is required.
Quandary can be especially hazardous in winter.
“Once they get above treeline, the wind takes out their tracks, and then coming down they get off trail. That can be dangerous because they can end up in avalanche terrain,” DeBattiste said.
With the snow fading, she said, once-packed-down trails can disappear among the deadfall and patchy snow.
Lost and overdue hikers continue to make up a majority of calls received. In 2019 and 2020, lost hikers and snowshoers made up about 50% of calls.
Last June, Summit County Rescue Group had a streak of 14 days with a call about an injured hiker each morning.
The group has performed two body recoveries this winter. Both were involved in an avalanche on Hoosier pass in January. In previous years, the group performed one body recovery for a dirt biker in 2021, and three in 2020 because of a drowned sailor, a hiker who fell and an individual in an avalanche on Red Mountain.
The group has 75 volunteers on staff. It added 13 new members in 2021 and only lost two. However, it has one member leaving the group in the coming weeks. Of the new members, eight are women, bringing the total number of female rescuers to 19. DeBattiste said in the field of search and rescue is male dominated.
A class with eight women joining, she said, is unprecedented.
While search and rescue always prefer people call when they think they need help, Battiste said there’s been a slight uptick in “frivolous calls.” It only happens a handful of times a year, she said, when people call to request help for borderline emergencies resulting from a lack of preparedness — tired hikers, adventurers without headlamps, people saying it’s become too cold.
DeBattiste said she always prefers people call, but many of those conversations end with the individual saying, “Okay, I think I can just keep going.”
She encourages folks to always go out prepared with emergency essentials, and adhere to three Ts:
- Trip plan. Make a plan and make sure someone whose not going out knows it, too.
- Training. Have the training and knowledge necessary and stay within your limits.
- Take the essentials. Bring what’s needed for the trip, including emergency gear.
As a word of caution, DeBattiste told the story of two experienced backcountry skiers earlier this month.
“We thought we were going fast and light. We thought it was going to take us this amount of time, so we took our headlamps out of our backpacks,” she recalled of the conversation, paraphrasing. “There was a lot of deadfall, and we got confused on the way out. We don’t know where we are now. It’s getting dark.”
For more information on avalanche conditions, safety and more, visit Avalanche.state.co.us.
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