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In a historically deadly avalanche season, rescuers explain why they race the odds

Members of a team from the Teton County (Wyo.) Search and Rescue Foundation at work last April after an avalanche that killed one person. (Courtesy of Teton County Search and Rescue)

For skiers, snowboarders and hikers, the lure of backcountry mountain slopes that are steep and snow that is deep can be irresistible. It’s a feeling that Dale Atkins knows firsthand, and one that nearly killed him.

“I was out with a group of ski patrol friends,” Atkins recalled of an outing years ago. “It was a day off and everybody had tremendous skill and knowledge, but we seemed to have left our brains on the nightstand when we went out. We were overwhelmed by the excitement, the exhilaration, the arousal of being out and in this deep snow and having fun and we stopped thinking ‘avalanche.’

“I took close to about a 2,000-foot ride in an avalanche and I was incredibly lucky. I was right at the edge of it and for whatever reason my skis stayed on. I got tumbled around a little bit, but for some reason I ended up on the surface. My skis came to the surface and I was able to shoot out to the side of the avalanche. So everybody thought I was a hero and I was really a zero and it was just pure luck that I got out of it.”

The experience changed Atkins, who trains avalanche rescuers in Colorado and is a former president of the American Avalanche Association and a former forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Knowledge of the outdoors and survival equipment and education can only do so much once an avalanche strikes. When people are buried in a mountainside of snow traveling at the speed of a train, survival is “basically 50-50.”

This has been a particularly deadly avalanche season, which in most years extends from November into June depending on the locale. Since December, there have been 35 fatalities among skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, hikers, snowshoers and climbers in 11 states, making this the deadliest winter season since 2013-14, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Twenty-six people were killed in February, the most in one month on U.S. record. After nearly a month without another death, two more people died in the past week in separate incidents in Colorado and California.

For these dogs, the deadly serious business of avalanche rescue is all a game

Death can come despite improved technology and an increase in avalanche education over the past 40 or so years, according to Atkins and others. State avalanche centers offer warnings about the safety level on mountains while beacons and survival gadgets, such as air bags, are available. Cellphones quickly raise awareness when an avalanche strikes, but survival is still a matter of minutes. Air bags and avalungs (snorkel-like devices to prevent oxygen in an air pocket from running out) can keep a person alive, provided they’re deployed in time.

Still, rescuers race the clock and, most likely, the odds. Although most victims are buried by an average of only three feet of snow, the prospects for survival become increasingly unlikely after about 15 minutes.

“In avalanche education, we teach that your best chances of being found alive are in the hands of your friends, your companions, and that makes complete sense because they’re the ones right there,” Atkins said. “They’re the ones with the shovels. They have the transceiver to home in on that signal from your unit and the probe to pinpoint you and dig you out. And they’re right there as compared to me as a member of a rescue team where we can be several hours away or even longer.”

He survived an avalanche by clinging to a tree. Then he started digging for his girlfriend.

Once rescue teams are called in, they find the race can be personal in tightknit, often small communities.

“Chances are, you know the person you’re going to,” said Stephanie Thomas, a rescuer for 14 years and executive director of the Teton County (Wyo.) Search and Rescue Foundation, of her group’s 90 to 100 rescue missions per year. She estimated that of those missions, which encompass any outdoor search year-round including avalanches, “anywhere between five and seven people” die. There have been four deadly avalanches in Wyoming this winter season, two of them in Teton County in the state’s northwest.

“It’s hard on our volunteer team to know that, ‘Oh, that’s my co-worker’s roommate’ that you just dug up,” she said. “It’s a lot of physical work, but a ton of emotional work as well and that’s something that we’ve been focusing a lot of our energies on over the last 18 months — really the resilience and kind of mental health part of rescue.”

Sometimes the difficult decision must be made about whether it is safe to remove the bodies of victims from the slopes.

Sometimes you know where someone is and you just can’t do it because of nightfall or whatever and you have to say that’s it for right now,” Thomas said. “Most of the time, we try to get them out, but sometimes we’ll have to stay with someone through the night.”

Search and rescue teams know that their mission may be one of recovery, compounding the emotional toll of the job. “It’s the camaraderie of the team, it keeps us together, keeps us going,” Atkins said. “It’s the satisfaction of helping a person and helping a family that keeps us going. And some members over the years have really struggled with the deaths that we responded to.”

Hope keeps them going, too.

“There are people that do survive for hours under the snow, but they are exceptions for me as an avalanche rescuer,” Atkins said. “For me as a rescuer, it’s knowing that people have sometimes survived hours, even 24 hours under the snow, gives me hope as a rescuer to find someone. We try really hard to find people as fast as we can.”

As an outdoorsman, Atkins understands the thrill of the outdoors in winter. As a rescuer, his preoccupation is safety.

“Many people think what we do in mountain rescuer is daring and risk taking and we’re risking our lives,” Atkins said, “and I can say that if we are risking our lives, we’re doing something very, very wrong. We are successful because of the strong processes that we use to help us mitigate and manage the risk that we face. We’re not perfect and we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, but we try really hard to minimize our risk as rescuers because the worst thing we could do is cause another accident.”

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