What search and rescue pros want every backcountry skier to know
Special to the Daily
• Apex Mountain School (apexmountainschool.com) has options for different levels of avalanche education, and it also offers a mountaineering class for anyone looking to get a bit more insight into making good decisions in the backcountry.
• Leadville’s High Mountain Institute is another local option for avalanche education (hminet.org).
• Colorado Mountain College’s campuses in Edwards and Leadville offer avalanche education classes — Levels 1 and 2 — for anyone looking to expand upon their backcountry knowledge. Courses include time in the classroom and in the backcountry and are shorter than a normal semester class (coloradomtn.edu).
• Information about snowpack and avalanche conditions can be found through the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us).
• The Summit County Rescue Group (co.summit.co.us/305/search-rescue) and Vail Mountain Rescue Group (vailmountainrescue.org) offer backcountry tips and suggested packing lists for survival kits, day hikes and more.
For each skier and snowboarder, there’s a different set of risks involved in heading out for a day on the mountain. Most of us won’t ever find ourselves in a situation where we need outside help on the mountain, either in bounds or out of bounds, but some of us will, and regardless, it’s important to know who to call, what services to utilize or what type of education is needed to be prepared for any situation.
On the mountain
Defibrillators are located across Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and most other Colorado ski resorts, with ski patrol and other on-mountain staff able to operate the devices. There also are many on-mountain employees able to assist in other emergencies.
Mountain safety patrollers, aka Yellow Jackets, are typically seen around high-traffic areas of the mountain and slow zones and are there to help enforce skier responsibility on the mountain — appropriate speed and control while skiing — and the other skier responsibilities outlined in the Colorado Ski Safety Act, including heeding all posted information and staying clear of closed sections and on-mountain operations equipment.
Ski patrol can be seen throughout both Vail and Beaver Creek mountains and are ideal employees to contact in the case of emergency. On top of training as first responders in a medical emergency, they can answer questions about the mountain and provide help in the case of other emergencies.
It should be noted that all on-mountain staff for both Beaver Creek and Vail could provide assistance in the case of an emergency. More information about the Colorado Ski Safety Act and the Skier Responsibility Code can be found on the resorts’ websites, or through ColoradoSki.com.
In the backcountry
If you’re heading into the backcountry, along with the knowledge that you’re leaving all the on-mountain resources that can help in the case of emergency, then you should also have an awareness of different resources at your disposal to get a better picture of backcountry conditions and who to call in the case of an emergency.
The go-to website pinned to your desktop should be the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which provides daily avalanche forecasts for areas around the state, detailed discussion on the snowpack and educational material. Even if you’re heading into the backcountry via designated access gates at Breck, Copper, Keystone or anywhere else, it’s critical to keep up with the local forecasters’ snowpack summary, as you’re on your own once you leave the resort.
If things go south when you’re in the backcountry, then the Vail Mountain Rescue Group (or the Summit County peer agency, Summit County Rescue Group) is reachable by dialing 911 — but this lifeline shouldn’t be regarded as a crutch for lacking basic knowledge or making poor decisions. The group is made up of volunteers who respond to emergency calls and work in conjunction with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office to handle all sorts of situations, ranging from lost or injured skiers and snowboarders to stuck snowmobilers.
Rescue from the backcountry is free of charge, however, if a Flight for Life helicopter is necessary, that cost is left between you and your insurance company. That being said, it shouldn’t be an expectation that if you’re lost or hurt a helicopter will whisk you out of your predicament; it’s a risky mission that is flown only out of absolute necessity. That necessity becomes even less likely at night, as flying in the dark can be dangerous to the rescuers, and a flight might need to be arranged — if needed — the next morning.
Share your plans
The most important keys to avoid needing a rescue, or to survival if you’re waiting for emergency responders to find you, come in two parts.
“The bulk of the missions are for people who are unprepared,” said Dan Smith, of Vail Mountain Rescue Group. “But even people who are prepared can have an accident, and then we have to know where they are.”
Before you head out, tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Cellphone batteries can die and phone GPS can be unreliable; notifying friends and family of your plan and when you plan to return — and sticking to the original plan — is the most important way to establish an efficient search and rescue.
Packing the appropriate equipment — gear that will get you through the night — is imperative, even if you’re undertaking a shorter backcountry endeavor during bluebird conditions. If you or someone in your group has an accident, then having enough gear to get through the night is an important part of survival. Resisting the urge to separate from the group is equally as important.
“Mission after mission after mission, someone separates from the group and then gets lost,” Smith said. “If you have to leave the person that’s injured, flag yourself up the hill so that you can call 911 and then find your way back down to the rest of the party.”
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