The Saratoga Sun -

Knowledge and gear

 

Max Miller

Presenter Landon McGuire watches a young attendee's airbag inflate in seconds at an avalanche presentation at the Platte Valley Community Center Dec. 16.

Outside, the evening of Dec. 16, wind-blown snow had lowered visibility to a couple hundred feet and the temperature was falling like a stone. Inside, around 10 people spread out across the Platte Valley Community Center (PVCC) theatre to get information on avalanche safety from experts on the Carbon County Search and Rescue (CCSR) team.

Pros in the Know

The presenters were Landon McGuire and Casey Cheesbrough, both of whom volunteer for the CCSR. McGuire spent close to a decade as a Forest Service Winter Snow Ranger and has also worked as a volunteer firefighter. Cheesbrough has also worked for the Forest Service and said before he moved to Carbon County he ran on Search and Rescue missions out of Walden, Colo.

During the presentation, both referenced "negative outcomes" in their work; finding bodies instead of survivors in the aftermath of tragic accidents in remote areas. The pain engendered by these experiences was clear to all present, and lent an air of solemnity to the proceedings.

Avalanches are a fact of life in mountainous areas, and they can strike with little warning and inflict enormous damage in seconds. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), on average, the snow events claim 27 lives a year in the U.S., and many of those deaths are preventable. Over 90 percent of fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim's party. More conscientious behavior by recreationists in risky areas could reduce those numbers significantly, and keep responders like Cheesbrough and McGuire at home sipping hot cocoa instead of in harm's way.

Knowing When to Stay In

An ounce of avalanche avoidance is worth hundreds of tons of "cure" moving down a mountain at 70 miles-per-hour. To that end, much of the presentation, which included two videos, a slideshow and a Q and A, focused on how to avoid the most dangerous times and areas.

Knowing the forecast for an area can be critical, and in places with large resorts or more people that can be as simple as logging onto avalanche.org. The site provides daily avalanche forecasts for much of the Rocky Mountain West, assigning risk using a five-point scale where five represents the most severe level of danger.

No such prediction services are offered in Carbon County.

"We're kind of on our own," McGuire said. He and Cheesbrough suggested the forecast for Colorado's adjacent Steamboat and Front Range areas can be somewhat useful in deciding whether to go out in Wyoming. They also suggested a public crowd-sourcing site, jhavalanche.org/mbow, where people can volunteer information on snow conditions in Carbon County.

Once in the field, recreationists are responsible for making their own safety determinations. In especially dangerous zones, parties should space themselves out to be minimally disruptive, a safety practice the presenters said can feel counterintuitive.

Signs of Danger

One of the most reliable indicators of danger are recent avalanches nearby, McGuire said. Other warning signs are visible cracks in the snow, cracking sounds, wind-blown snow and recent weather swings that weaken snow plates as they thaw and refreeze. McGuire noted that wind-blown snow is present in this area practically throughout the entire winter recreation season.

Avalanches typically occur on slopes that are between 30 and 50 degrees. Too steep and the snow tumbles down before it can build up substantially; not steep enough and gravity's pull is too weak to create a dangerous slide. Slopes of about 39 degrees are the most dangerous, and anything between 35 and 45 degrees should be treated with particular caution. Unfortunately, as Cheesbrough said of those slopes, for many skiers and snowmobilers, "that's the fun stuff."

Winter explorers also have to think about what they're connected to, the presenters stressed. Flat spots aren't necessarily safe, because once an avalanche starts, it can pull material from far afield into its slide. Being underneath a potential slide area is also dangerous.

How You'd Die

Around 25 percent of avalanche fatalities are trauma related, induced by smashing into rocks and trees. No equipment or training can prevent those deaths. For other victims, time is critical: After 30 minutes under the snow, survival rates fall below 20 percent and keep dropping rapidly. About 73 percent of avalanche fatalities result from carbon dioxide (CO2) asphyxiation with victims suffocating on their own exhalations under the snow. Only 2 percent of deaths are caused by hypothermia. After the initial slide, avalanche snow sets up quickly "like concrete," so most victims are totally immobilized and can only be saved by those on the surface.

Because survival is so time-dependent, having the right gear and knowing how to use it can be the critical variable in a life-or-death equation. "Your initial pinpoint search from those in your party is your best bet (for locating a living victim)" Cheesbrough said.

By the time professionals arrive, it will likely be too late.

In an avalanche, "You're most likely to be the most heavy and densest object in there, so you'll sink to the bottom," McGuire said. A good spot for rescuers to start looking for victims is near trees and in gullies.

Gearheads not Dead

According to the presenters, recreationists should always go out with a metal bladed shovel, a compass, a telescoping probe to poke into the snow and a transceiver.

A transceiver sends out a signal rescuers can trace to locate a victim buried under snow and should be strapped securely to one's body so it doesn't come loose. A major theme of the evening was that recreationists must regularly practice locating transceivers if they hope to successfully deploy one in an emergency.

Once a victim has been located, they should be dug out as fast as possible, with rescuers digging from the downhill side of the snow.

Other devices that can help people survive an avalanche are airbags and avalungs. An avalung is a sort of snorkel that forces CO2 away from a victim's head, but it's not practical for snowmobilers because it can't be worn under a helmet.

An airbag is a type of inflatable neckbrace that can lessen trauma injuries and help survivors "float" to the top of a snow slide. It also creates a larger air pocket in which they can breathe.

"It doesn't make you bullet proof, but you feel a lot better," Cheesbrough said of the airbag.

Not the End

At the end of the class, presenters drew names and gave away hundreds of dollars in equipment donated by Shively Hardware, the Saratoga Resort and the Trading Post. Gear-giveaways included an avalung, a transceiver and other prizes (full disclosure: this reporter won a pricey Ortovox transceiver).

They also stressed that this lecture was only a first step in becoming avalanche-aware. Those who plan on having more back country fun this winter may want to complete a Type I Avalanche course for more detailed guidance. Such a course is taught in Laramie for about $30 plus the cost of a textbook, the presenters said.

"There's a ton of fun to be had in the mountains, and a lot of safe ways to have it," Cheesbrough concluded.

 

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