Multiagency avalanche rescue drill only one of its kind
'Time is life' key in practice avalanche rescue
By Judi Villa
Rocky Mountain News
DENVER, Colo. — Scott Wilson hunkered down in a snow cave and waited. Outside, he could hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of a helicopter. Above him, he heard the crunch of footsteps.
Finally, a dog nosed through the snow that sealed Wilson in the cave on Shrine Mountain. Then came hands and a shovel.
"I was saved," Wilson said. "I lived!"
The "rescue" was part of an elaborate, multiagency drill on Thursday that was designed to mimic a real avalanche. The "Avalanche Deployment Exercise" is the only one of its kind in the country, officials say.
The exercise uses a Flight for Life Colorado medical helicopter to airlift a search dog, its handler and a snow safety technician onto the mountain, where a "reporting person" meets the flight and lays out the scenario:
Four people are trapped in an avalanche.
"They're going in there fairly blind," said Kevin Kelble, a paramedic with Flight for Life Colorado.
And they don't have a lot of time. After 30 minutes, the chance of surviving an avalanche is only 50 percent.
"After that, it rapidly decreases. The deeper you're buried, the less chance you have of survival," Kelble said. "Realistically, if we're not in there in the first 15 to 30 minutes, your chance of surviving is limited."
Charley Shimanski, president of the Mountain Rescue Association, said air rescues are extremely complex and drills like Thursday's allow agencies to work together to get in quickly and make the right judgments on the mountain.
"It's always difficult when you're trying to combine many different technologies and usually battling weather, the altitude and somebody who's life is on the line," Shimanski said. "We can never have enough practice."
Crews usually can launch within three minutes, and they usually arrive at a scene in 20 minutes, he said.
"And that will save a life."
On Thursday, search teams had to find one person buried in the snow, as well as one dummy.
Additionally, avalanche beacons were buried, sending off signals that allowed rescuers to pinpoint their location.
Aaron Parmet, of the Summit County Rescue Group, prepared to jump onboard a helicopter with his dog, Cascade. He focused on the job ahead. "Speed, efficiency and proficiency," Parmet said.
"Time is life," he said. "We're going to do everything we can, but sometimes you can't do everything you want."