United Search and Rescue of Montezuma County spent the morning near the Norwood Road north of Dolores, looking for transceivers buried in deep snow. The volunteer group, which works with the sheriff’s office, invited avalanche safety instructor Mike Duffy to give avalanche training to newcomers on the team. They typically hold these training courses once every two years.
The course started Friday night with a lecture on avalanche safety and how to use avalanche transceivers to find people buried in snow. The next morning about a dozen search and rescue volunteers showed up for the hands-on portion, where they tested their transceivers’ range and searched for them in the snow. Most of the volunteers had never undergone avalanche training before, but some just came to refresh their memory.
After an unusually snowy, avalanche-prone month in the Southwest, the course seemed particularly timely. Duffy said avalanche training is important for both emergency workers and civilians who plan to ski or hike in the back country. During the classroom part of the training, he encouraged volunteers to pay attention to the avalanche forecast before going out on a rescue mission, and educate themselves on which terrain would be most risky in bad weather.
“Avalanches are the problem,” he said. “Trained selection is the solution.”
The hands-on portion focused on a specific type of gear that search and rescue workers use: an avalanche transceiver, also known as a beacon. Ski-ers and snowboarders often carry these in the mountains, and they send out signals that rescue workers can use to find people under snow. Errin Walker, United’s training officer, said she was pleased to have significant snow to practice in. After they tested their devices’ range, the volunteers split up into teams and took turns burying a transceiver for the other team to find. Despite a few false starts, each team was able to find the hidden transceiver in about 15 minutes or less on their first try.
Paul Adams, a member of the Cortez Parks, Recreation and Forestry board and a volunteer with United, took the avalanche training for the first time on Saturday even though he said he doesn’t like the cold.
“I actually don’t participate in a lot of snow sports,” he said. “But I’m doing this because it’s good knowledge to have.”
Some of the volunteers who took the training had only been with the search and rescue team a few months, though others were veterans. Julie Birkle said she’s new to Montezuma County, but has done search and rescue work in La Plata County for years. Ha Thi Huynh works with United’s president, Kirk Underwood, at Underwood Optical in Cortez, and she said he “recruited” her and her husband to the team about five months ago. She said she was excited to get to work with the other volunteers.
In the past, United has invited the Dolores K-9 rescue unit to the training, as well as local snowmobile clubs, fire fighters and other groups that might benefit from an avalanche course. This year none of those groups were able to come, although they did have a few joint trainings earlier this winter. Walker said she hopes they can coordinate training more often with other rescue agencies in the future.
“We’re trying to improve that,” she said. “Last week we did a joint GPS training with the fire district, because we’re all going to be out there together.”
Although United hasn’t rescued anyone from an avalanche yet this year, they have had a relatively busy winter, secretary Troy Batavia said. The group helped find two missing hunters in the Stoner area in November, and two weeks later helped rescue two teenagers whose car got stuck in the snow above Transfer Campground.
“That’s always a positive thing, especially for new members, to start them out with something positive,” Batavia said. “This job isn’t always glamorous.”
A Durango resident made headlines earlier this month after he survived a Jan. 9 avalanche on U.S. Highway 550, in part because his partner was able to find him quickly with an avalanche transceiver. Some of the United volunteers mentioned that case while talking about their motivation to complete avalanche training.
“The more education you can have, the better,” Duffy said.