Summit County rescuers share strategies, challenges with Chinese peers
September 15, 2010
FRISCO – Higher peaks and fewer roads are among obstacles Chinese backcountry rescuers face when searching for victims of avalanches and other mishaps.
Eight members of Sichuan Mountaineering Association, which recovered three Boulder climbers who died in an avalanche last year, met with local rescuers this week to share perspectives.
The visitors arrived through donations made in spring 2009 toward recovering the bodies of Jonny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson from the side of Sichuan’s Mt. Edgar (elevation 22,638 feet).
Johnson’s family directed finances left over from the operation to the rescue members’ travel costs. A couple of the visitors were on the recovery mission, and they met with the victims’ family members in Boulder this week.
The Sichuan rescuers met with Summit County Rescue Group members Tuesday morning before exploring some local terrain and participating in a simulated rescue. Though the Chinese have fewer resources, there were a number of issues they share with their American counterparts.
The Sichuan rescuers’ response time to an avalanche rescue ranges from three to five days, one of the rescue members said through interpreter Diana Li.
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Summit rescuers can have an avalanche dog on the ground in less than 17 minutes, which SCRG director Joe Ben Slivka said is “fairly unparalleled” in the United States.
As the Chinese economy flourishes, people have more free time to explore the country’s mountains – which reach as high as 24,000 feet – and get into trouble.
“They’re totally naive,” one of the Sichuan rescuers said.
Summit County Rescue Group spokesman Jim Koegel said there’s certainly a local issue of people getting in over their heads in the backcountry, but the stakes are higher in China.
The two groups also identified many commonalties. For example, both rely on donations and are comprised of volunteer members.
The Chinese said the families of people rescued – or bodies recovered – often give money. In some cases, the rescuers ask the families for compensation.
People who travel into the Chinese backcountry pay fees for insurance. The government also puts up money to help with some missions.
SCRG functions as a nonprofit on donations, grants and fundraising efforts. People who get rescued aren’t charged fees.
“It would seem like most of the money comes from people we rescue, but it doesn’t,” SCRG mission coordinator Dan Burnett said.
The Chinese rescuers visited Boulder on Sunday and Monday, and they’re traveling Washington state today before returning home.
On Tuesday they executed a cooperative training exercise on Mount Quandary with Summit rescuers. They climbed Lenawee Mountain on Wednesday. The three mountains are Summit County’s highest peaks; but at no more than 14,265 feet, they’re dwarfed by many of the Sichuan mountains.
Slivka said Tuesday’s mission – a scree evacuation out of Cristo Couloir – was intended for both groups to share strategies, “because we want to learn from them as well.”
Chinese rescuers were told that morning of the many resources widely available to help with rescues in Colorado. They said their tools are limited.
Summit rescuers have helicopters, dogs, satellite phones, beacons and radios to help improve the outcome of a rescue or recovery operation.
In May 2008, China had an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 68,000 people. The Sichuan rescuers saved many lives and had some help from military dogs.
The group wants to have its own, dedicated search-and-rescue dogs, but it doesn’t have the proper training materials.
It’s also tough finding dogs of the proper breeds for search operations.
“Your system is set in stone; ours is up in the air,” one of the Chinese rescuers said.
Burnett said it can be easy to raise funds for rescue dogs because people have an affection for animals.
He said there are four avalanche dogs available locally for backcountry avalanche rescues while local ski areas have a total of 26 dogs.
“Which is a funny thing,” he said. “Because almost all of the avalanches happen outside the ski areas.”
The U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership program orchestrated the visit and also helped with expenses.
Senior program officer Chris Mrozowski said this is likely the first time the U.S. government has invited “actual first responders” from a foreign country to meet with their American counterparts.
“It’s been a tremendously successful visit,” he said Wednesday. “Hopefully we’ll get these guys (from Summit) out to China at some point.”
SDN reporter Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.