The tale of a rescue, when you’re the one buried
The sound of thousands of pounds of snow rushing down a mountain sounds like nothing more than a creak of a rock, so you relax and take in the views you worked so hard to reach.
Then, nature’s giant hand picks you up and carries you down the mountain, spinning you around in a natural blender filled with trees, rocks and blocks of snow. It rips off your backpack, tears off a glove, pries off your goggles, twists your pants halfway around your body and steals the boot off your right foot.
In the back of your mind, you think: “This is it. My death.”
Quiet and cold. Vertigo. You feel the weight of the snow press your beacon against your chest; your last image before you submerge is your friend on top of the ridge watching you go.
Your training begins to help. You know your only hope for survival is that a rescuer or your friend can find you before you die of carbon dioxide poisoning or succumb to a slow, hypothermic demise. The golden time limit is 30 minutes, if you haven’t been crushed by a tree, a rock or something else traveling the speed of a car on the interstate.
Meanwhile, more things outside of your control are beginning to take shape. Nearby snowshoers have seen the slide and noticed tracks heading into the avalanche area. Then, they see your friend waving his arms.
The hikers find a phone and call 911. This is when the rescue operation begins.
The 911 dispatcher puts out a coordination page to local law enforcement, including the Summit County Rescue Group located in Frisco. Glen Kraatz, group leader, sips his morning coffee at home and hears the page.
Twenty of his teammates hear the call, so the phone begins to ring. Kraatz is on the other line talking with dispatch and hears the confirmation. Tracks in. Confirmed burial.
The clock still ticks. Two minutes have passed.
Once he hears the confirmation burial, Kraatz requests the “All Call,” a signal by dispatch that reaches all 49 pagers in the rescue group. They name the trailhead at the base of the mountain as the staging area, where coordination will be centered.
Kraatz asks for Flight For Life avalanche deployment and, because each ski resort lets dispatchers know every morning of dogs, dog handlers and snow safety technicians available, the dispatcher knows which resort has the closest dog team. The dispatcher patches into a mapping program and describes the closest trail for rescuers.
Meanwhile, a helicopter is flying to the top of a nearby resort, while you struggle against the compacted snow. A dog, a dog handler and a snow safety technician board the helicopter and fly toward the burial.
Fifteen minutes have passed.
The snow technician surveys the site and picks the safest landing spot, which is just above the slide area. The snow departed from the top of the mountain, leaving little risk for another slide caused by the heavy helicopter, or remaining hangfire – the snow that didn’t slide the first time.
They exit the helicopter and begin climbing down to the point where your friend is standing, probing aimlessly around the huge snow field for signs of life.
Meanwhile, the rescue crew is dividing. Some are going to headquarters to pick up equipment and snowmobiles. Others are already arriving at the staging point, where they hear that there is still no sign of life.
Twenty-five minutes have passed. Your time is running out.
There, the “Hasty Team” is formed. A small crew of the strongest rescue members begins hiking toward the slide. While the mission coordinator oversees the staging point, a site commander leads the “Hasty Team” through heavy trees and up the mountain. He assigns one member to do a perimeter search, to make sure you haven’t climbed out of the slide injured. He assigns another to make a check of terrain traps, meaning they will check trees and rocks to see if you were hung up by natural obstacles. Two crew members begin combing the area to look for a beacon signal. Another searches the debris field looking for clues.
He finds your backpack and a glove.
Thirty-five minutes have passed. You’re beginning to lose consciousness.
More rescuers arrive, and the site coordinator assigns a probe search around the clues. They begin stepping off and carefully sticking poles through the snow. Then, they take another step forward.
Whether they find you alive is the question. If they do, they slide you down to an ambulance and you never see mountains the same again. If they don’t, the community mourns. Whatever happens, the Rescue Group prepares for another day.
Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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