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Avalanche beacons save lives

Susan Wood

KIRKWOOD – Mother Nature has no mercy for ignorance.

When it comes to avalanches, the most important education backcountry skiers and snowboarders can pick up starts far before the adventure.

To patrollers at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, carting a beacon into the backcountry may appear to be a status symbol, but it carries no weight in terms of practical use if one doesn’t know how it works.

That’s why the Alpine County ski area, known for its deep snow, is offering daily beacon training. This winter is the first the resort has opened the station behind the Mountain Village coffee house and delicatessen.

“Practice, practice, practice,” Kirkwood senior patroller Rick Newberry said Saturday during a demonstration as snow fell. “The important thing is that this becomes second nature.”

He buried one beacon and held another with a probe to show a dozen people how to use the tools. The practice of carrying probes started in the Swiss Alps hundreds of years ago.

Newberry positioned the probe in a grid pattern until the buried beacon could be found. He warned users to refrain from having tunnel vision.

“Don’t get blinded by the beacon. Look up for visual clues,” such as a glove or hat in the area, he said.

The topography of Kirkwood is much to be reckoned with. When it snows, 20 patrollers in couplings start their day at 6 a.m. to cover two miles of ridge line to ensure conditions are safe for riders.

Kirkwood ski patroller Dave Paradyz – who was also at the demonstration – told participants if they are caught in an avalanche, they should to try to “swim” with the snow flow.

“And just as you feel it slowing down, put your hands up by your face” to an air pocket, he said.

Although the time varies, about half of all buried victims die if not rescued within 30 minutes.

That’s why Kirkwood also deploys an extra insurance policy for riders – an 8-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever named Jade. She was at another demonstration, in which she found a mock buried victim in a few minutes.

“(Dogs) really are the fastest,” Paradyz said.

Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at swood@tahoedailytribune.com