It takes a team |

It takes a team

summit daily news
Summit Daily/Julie Sutor

SUMMIT COUNTY – Under bluebird skies, a bright orange Flight For Life helicopter charged southwest from Breckenridge Ski Resort Monday morning, carrying two ski patrollers and an avalanche dog.

An unknown number of victims lay buried under thousands of pounds of avalanche debris atop Chicago Ridge on the Continental Divide, above Ski Cooper. The aircraft slowed above the ridge, allowing the patrollers – avalanche technician Andy Lapkass and dog handler Hunter Mortensen with his dog, Tali – to survey the location, look for clues and choose a safe route onto the scene.

The helicopter touched down, and the rescuers exited, heading straight for the debris field. Methodically, the three worked their way over and around massive chunks of slab snow, using a beacon and Tali’s keen nose to locate victims.

Lapkass and Mortensen gradually called Ski Cooper patrollers and bystanders onto the scene, instructing them to dig victims free or probe the snow for more bodies.

Within 15 minutes of touching down, the expanded team had located and extricated all three victims and had begun providing medical care.

Monday morning’s mission was just a drill, and the “victims” were trained backcountry guides, bundled up in snow caves. Back in Breckenridge, Chicago Ridge Snowcat guides were engaged in a similar exercise on Peak 9. But the situation was real enough to help keep rescuers at the ready for the real thing.

“Not many people realize the amount of time and effort that goes into this volunteer program, supported by the ski areas, to maintain a dedicated group of people willing to go out there and help at any moment,” Mortensen said. “It’s a constantly ongoing process to make it safer and faster and to have better outcomes. You can never practice enough.”

The exercise on Chicago Ridge was part of the Avalanche Deployment Training Program under the auspices of the Summit County Sheriff’s Department. Flight For Life paramedic Kevin Kelble coordinates the trainings. Eight ski areas and Summit County Rescue Group provide the volunteers and the funding for the trainings, which take place once a week throughout the winter.

For Tali, the training marked her first time in a helicopter.

“I was extremely proud,” Mortensen said. “The bulk of the training we do is inside the ski area. Her willingness to do what she’s been taught in the stress of a new place and new situation blew me away and reminded me how useful a tool she is.”

Volunteers in the program undergo extensive training to ride in and work around the helicopters, in addition to being trained in emergency medicine, snow science, search-and-rescue skills and backcountry travel. All dogs must be certified, and the techs and handlers have to be experienced; in real emergencies, they’re dropped off in the backcountry, sometimes with no ride home.

“If we have a critical patient, we leave (the rescuers), and they have to have the ability to spend the night, to travel in the backcountry and to get themselves out,” Kelble said. “The people who do this are very committed.”

The training exercises not only serve to sharpen skills, but also to acquaint rescuers and flight crews with each other.

“The better rapport we have, the safer and more successful the rescues will be,” Mortensen said.

The Avalanche Deployment Program has been in place since 1992. Teams deploy for real avalanche rescues two or three times each winter. But in some years, the helicopters have delivered rescue teams as many as a dozen times, according to Kelble.

Traveling by air to reach backcountry emergencies can drastically cut the time of the rescue effort.

“It may take 16 hours to do a ground haul, but we can swoop in there, grab the body and get out in 45 minutes,” Kelble said. “When we’re used appropriately, we’re an incredibly powerful tool that’s sitting in your quiver.”

While the deployment program is a great service in a county with hundreds of backcountry travelers, it’s no substitute for good preparation and decision-making on the part of the recreator.

“Your No. 1 weapon in the backcountry is education. We have the utmost respect for hurricanes, oceans and tornadoes, but some people have zero respect for the winter backcountry,” Kelble said.

“We’re working with water in its most terrifying form,” Mortensen said. “It looks so serene, and that’s what gets people into trouble.”

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or

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