More snow calls for playing in the mountains and getting educated about avalanches
A small group of bundled up skiers and snowmobilers recently huddled together on a sunny, blue bird day in the foothills of the Wyoming Range in western Wyoming.
Sublette County’s Tip Top Search and Rescue hosted a public avalanche awareness class. John Kochever, a senior search and rescue member, led the class. He is a cheerful, tall guy with a contagious laugh.
“Let’s gather up, you can get closer. I don’t bite – too hard,” Kochever said with a chuckle.
As Kochever talked to the group, the sound of snowmobilers revving their engines echoed around. The class is being held at a popular trailhead in the area for backcountry users.
“We have struggled in the past with not getting very many people. And then there was the accident,” Kochever said.
The accident was about five years ago – a local man died in an avalanche, not far from this trailhead.
“I think it really raised awareness in the communities about the hazards that can be in the hills and actually close to the trail,” he said. “You hear a lot of people talk about, ‘Oh, it's safe, it's right next to the trail.’ Well, it isn't always.”
It’s all about the layers.
The Rocky Mountain West region is seeing more snow this winter than it has since 2017, which means more powder-hungry skiers and snowmobilers are going out into the backcountry. But with getting out into the mountains, can come the risk of avalanches.
And this year, avalanche conditions have been pretty variable. That cold spell in December where temperatures were -20 degrees Fahrenheit and colder, created a weak layer in the snow – and the wind did not help. Weak layers are what can make snow unstable and can lead to avalanches, said Gabrielle Antonioli, a forecaster for the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center.
Antonioli added that there is a silver lining. All the new snow pummeling the West is helping.
“That layer, sort of just getting buried deeper and deeper and deeper,” she said. “And that's good, because we have a lower likelihood of triggering it.”
But, Antonioli said that does not mean the weak layer completely disappears either.
“The likelihood is lowering of triggering it, but the consequence of triggering it is quite high,” she said. “Because if we do, it's a really big avalanche.”
She said last year, avalanche conditions were relatively low in the western U.S., as there was not much snow to begin with and there were a lot of sunny days. In the middle of winter, the sun sort of bakes the snow and can tend to make it super solid – not so unstable.
And while no one can completely predict the future, Antonioli said that this year she expects the weaker layers of snow are here to stay till spring. So, backcountry users need to be prepared and careful.
Practicing for the worst case scenario.
Six guys in the avalanche class are shoveling through an 8-foot-tall snow bank that is almost as hard as cement. Kochever said it is what it might feel like digging for someone who is buried by an avalanche.
“In amongst all of this you guys are doing – you’re short of breath, you’re tired, you’re working as hard as you can. You’re also trying to speak with your subject that’s buried,” he said. “So you’re trying to speak and dig and breathe at 9,000 feet elevation.”
The idea is to speak to the buried person to keep them calm if they are still conscious.
The group shovels from the side of the buried object - not straight down. Kochever said it is actually more efficient for snow removal. One guy does the initial shoveling, and the rest move that snow away, and as they get tired they rotate.
“Dig the snow to me, dig the snow to me,” Kochever said with enthusiasm. “Keep on digging guys. You’re young, you’re strong.”
After about 10 minutes, the group gets to the buried object. Kochever said a buried person has about 15 minutes for a 90 percent chance of survival – that is as long as the trauma of the avalanche did not kill them first.
“Once your time has gotten to 30 minutes of being buried, your survival rate is 30 percent – you can see what the scale is doing,” Kochever said. “It's bad by the time it's been 60 minutes, you’re in the single digits for survival rate. So it's critical that you and your companions know what they're doing and have the proper equipment.”
Proper equipment includes a shovel for digging someone out, a probe for poking through the snow to locate feel for someone, and a beacon, which is a GPS device that can help locate someone who is buried. But, the key is that everyone has to have a beacon on them.
Justin Wilkins is a snowmobiler from Sweetwater County, and he said he tries to practice his avalanche rescue skills every year.
“It automatically just heightens your awareness and kind of gives you that adrenaline that you're trying to kind of work against,” Wilkins said. “If it's your buddy out there, obviously then you're even more so just on tilt, your blood pressure's up.”
When in doubt 30 degrees or less.
This winter there have been six avalanche-caused deaths in the U.S., all of which took place in the Rocky Mountain West, and with the large amount of snowfall this year, people will likely still be going out into the snowy backcountry even through May. Last season saw 17 fatalities in the country.
The local search and rescue responds to many avalanche calls, and Kochever said almost every member has responded to a fatal accident involving someone they knew.
“So we don't want to be finding any of you out there. It's not good. It's hard on us also,” he said. “So like I say, we're not trying to scare you off. I'm just trying to give you some information. There's tons and tons of safe recreating even when avalanche hazard is, you know, moderate, considerable or high.”
When in doubt, Kochever said backcountry users should stick to slope angles of less than 30 degrees, as snow cannot avalanche at those angles.
Kochever has the group keep on practicing their rescue skills for a couple more hours, all in hopes of never having to use the skills in a real life scenario.