Agencies train to deal with avalanche search and rescues

Jen Schmidt/Nevada Appeal nEws Service Diamond Peak ski patrollers push avalanche probes into the snow during an search and rescue drill Friday afternoon at Sheeps Flat. The technique is called a probe line, which advances a step at a time, systematically probing the snow with special poles to pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche victim.

Jen Schmidt/Nevada Appeal nEws Service Diamond Peak ski patrollers push avalanche probes into the snow during an search and rescue drill Friday afternoon at Sheeps Flat. The technique is called a probe line, which advances a step at a time, systematically probing the snow with special poles to pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche victim.

"Strike!"

The words reverberated across the snowy meadow, as Mt. Rose Ski Patroller Paul Phillipson felt something soft with his probe deep within the snow.

He had picked up a transceiver signal, bringing fresh hope that the skier caught in the avalanche would be found before his life was crushed from him.

Several hands armed with shovels came to dig out one of two people, buried by an avalanche that swept down a hill Friday at the Mt. Rose Meadows. After several minutes of frantic shoveling, the rescuers pulled hard, and a backpack came out with the transceiver still in it.

The body was nowhere near.

A common mistake among backcountry skiers is to carry a transceiver in a backpack or bag that could be swept off their body during an avalanche. The electronic lifeline needs to be near the skiers' body.

So again, the rescuers set to work, encouraged by the avalanche dog across the slide area digging out the second victim. A probe line was set up, and a line of firefighters, paramedics and ski patrol carefully stuck long, skinny poles into the snowpack, searching for a hit.

Finally, there it was, something soft deep in the snow. Digging again, the rescuers intensified their efforts, adding more shovelers to the scene.

Suddenly, they broke through to a hole, and a hand reached out.

"Pull him out!"

Pulled from the hole under 4 feet of snow, out came Slide Mountain Hand Crew firefighter Chad Baker - all smiles.

The volunteer avalanche victim had survived another training exercise by the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.

The NLTFPD held avalanche training exercises Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at Mt. Rose's Sheep Flats area and coordinated with other agencies to create a realistic mock avalanche situation.

Responding to Friday's emergency were the Sierra Fire Protection District, based in Galena, as well as ski patrol from Mt. Rose Ski Area and Diamond Peak Ski Area, according to Bruce Hicks, a firefighter/paramedic who coordinated the avalanche training.

Attending the training on other days were the Sierra Avalanche Center and the Carson Ranger District.

"It's better that we practice beforehand," Hicks said, adding that real-life training helps rescuers with the complexities of organizing a scene in inclement weather with various agencies involved.

Mt. Rose Ski patroller John Talbott brought Tonka, an experienced avalanche dog, while Paulette Schmeider, the assistant ski patrol director at Mt. Rose, brought Penny, a border collie who is in her first month of work as an avalanche dog.

Two teams set out to find two previously buried victims. As the victims waited in the snow, wrapped in a tarp and in communication by radio with another firefighter, the groups searched the area marked as a slide zone.

Tonka sniffed out the first victim, and Slide Mountain Hand Crew member Eric Darragh was unburied.

"They just buried me in the hole," Darragh said. "I just hung out in there until these guys came. I could hear the dog digging."

The other group searched for Baker, finding him with the probe line.

"Being buried wasn't too hard. The worst part was digging the hole. It was nice and warm, I had insulation and I just waited," Baker said.

Both men had been buried once before this week, as different groups of NLTFPD personnel underwent the training.

"I think it's a great training. We're trying to get clean objectives and a game plan for communication with the different agencies. Communication is always a key," said Bill Steward, the training captain of the Sierra Fire Protection District.

After the searches ended, NLTFPD Battalion Chief Mike Schwartz reviewed what went right and what went wrong, and again, communication was the issue.

With more and more people venturing into the backcountry, as well as snowmobilers going into areas farther and farther afield, training for avalanches is important, Hicks said.

However, he cautioned that a person's best chance of being rescued in the backcountry is from someone else skiing with you, as long as they are prepared with transceivers, shovels and probes.

"Your best chance is your buddy. There is 30 minutes or less to find someone," Hicks said.

Even those people skiing extreme areas inside ski resorts, such as the chutes at Mt. Rose Ski Area, should carry transceivers, Talbott said.

"It's getting to be that a certain percentage of them are wearing them, especially chute skiers," Talbott said.

Phillipson added, "The smart ones carry a transceiver, shovel and probe."

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment