‘Some of those kids just don’t care’
Many traveling into Loveland Pass backcountry not fully equipped for avalanchesBy Bob BerwynSummit County CorrespondentSUMMIT COUNTY – For all the efforts to increase the general level of avalanche awareness among backcountry travelers, the message apparently isn’t getting through to everyone.Only about every third person headed for the backcountry around Loveland Pass on a recent Saturday was carrying the avalanche gear that makes a timely search-and-rescue mission possible. Those numbers come from an informal survey conducted by U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Shelly Grail and several Arapaho Basin ski patrollers, who spent the day at the pass talking to skiers and snowboarders using the popular area along the Continental Divide near the Eisenhower Tunnel.Altogether, the avalanche experts talked to about 75 people at the pass, and Grail said only 25 of them were equipped with beacons, shovels or probe poles. Grail said that very few people were fully equipped for a self rescue. In other words, while there may have been one member of a two- or three-person group with a beacon and shovel, the other members of the group had none of the needed gear, she said. “It’s painfully obvious that some of those kids just don’t care,” Grail said.In an avalanche rescue, speed is of the essence. A buried victim’s best chance for survival is if he or she is quickly located and excavated by members of his own group. After only 30 minutes under the snow, the survival rate drops dramatically.Being buried with a beacon on you won’t help much unless the other members of the group are also equipped with beacons and know how to use them properly. And while beacon searches can locate a victim to within a few feet, probe poles are still essential to pinpoint a buried victim.”I’m really shocked at the number of people at Loveland who are going into the backcountry without avalanche gear,” said Spencer Logan, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.Both Logan and Grail speculated that, because access to the Loveland Pass terrain is so easy, there’s a perception that the area isn’t subject to the same avalanche hazards as more remote backcountry areas. Yet Loveland Pass sees numerous close calls each year, and there have been several deadly avalanche accidents in the area in the past 20 years.Grail also said a number of people contacted at the Pass were wearing Recco reflectors and thought that they were therefore covered as far as avalanche safety.But the relatively new and inexpensive Recco technology (widely used in Europe) requires special receiving equipment that isn’t universally available yet. It is not a substitute for the standard transceivers that enable a quick rescue, Grail and Logan cautioned.”It’s something Search and Rescue will bring in. It’s not something you can use to rescue your buddy. It just makes their bodies easier to find,” Logan said.Dan Burnett, a 25-year veteran of the Summit Search and Rescue Group, said he has recovered numerous dead bodies from underneath tons of snow. Searching and probing debris for a victim who is likely already dead is almost indescribably bleak, he said. “That doesn’t mean search-and-rescue teams won’t go to search for a buried avalanche victim – they almost always do,” he said. At times, conditions are simply too dangerous to continue, as in the case of a Dec. 30 slide near Loveland Pass, when tracks were reported in an avalanche path, though there was no visual confirmation of a burial. In that case, Arapahoe Basin ski patrollers were the first responders on-scene, ultimately making the call that continued search-and-rescue operations were too risky. Although there was no burial in that case, the scenario also underscores how important it is for a group of friends to be able to rescue themselves without waiting for outside help, the avalanche experts said.Vail, Colorado
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