U.S. see historically dangerous avalanche season
Hendrik Sybrandy

Near Vail Pass, Colorado, five friends take advantage of fresh new powder to enjoy a day of skiing and snowmobiling. Then, without warning, a large avalanche buries three members of the group. Search and rescue teams rush to the scene to try to save those trapped.

"It's about locating, accessing, stabilizing and transporting the people we find," said Dale Atkins with the Alpine Rescue Team. He's spent more than four decades responding to these types of incidents. That doesn't mean his actions are second nature.

"Well they're perishable skills so we've got to practice them to stay sharp," Atkins said.

Fortunately, that's all it is on this day: practice. This training scenario supplements lots of recent real world experience for emergency responders in the U.S. Mountain West.

"The trend is more backcountry rescues and not only that but more serious rescues," said Jake Smith with the Mountain Rescue Association.

Not all of them, Smith said, have been successful. 33 people have been killed in avalanches in the U.S. this season, virtually all of them out west. Four died in one snow slide in Utah in February. These are some of the most dangerous conditions forecasters have ever seen.

"These people were out just enjoying the sunshine and beautiful weather, thought they'd go for a great ski and have it end in a tragedy like this," said Sgt. Melody Cutler with Utah's Unified Police Department.

The volume of snow that comes down is obviously a major contributor  to avalanche conditions. But a long dry period before that snowfall is also an essential ingredient, creating an unstable snowpack that can shift quickly. Experts say with more people looking for outdoor recreation during the pandemic and outside of ski resort boundaries, that spells trouble.

"This trend has been apparent for a number of years," said Brian Lazar, the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "COVID has in some ways accelerated the use of the backcountry."

Even backcountry pros unaccustomed to unusual snow conditions can get in over their heads.

"Some of the people who were getting caught and killed in avalanches had a fair bit of experience under their belt," Lazar said.

Those who venture into these areas are urged to check avalanche forecasts beforehand and, above all, remain searchable.

"That's having an avalanche transceiver so your friends can find you, it's having a RECCO reflector, it's having a whistle, it’s having a light," Atkins said.

Those tools help speed up a rescue.

"When we're faster, that’s maybe where we can make a difference," Atkins added.

Avalanche rescue training even includes practice counseling sessions for team members.

"We need to be prepared to do anything because when it is that critical time and a life is on the line we have to execute flawlessly," Smith said.

That's even more crucial now as this unexpectedly precarious season enters its final few months. 

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