With every minute that a person is buried in an avalanche, his or her chance of survival drops by 1 to 2 percent.
Because time is such a critical element in avalanche rescues, the more rapidly a team can be assembled to help, the more likely an incident will end positively instead of tragically.
That’s why, in 1992, the Rapid Avalanche Deployment program was created. The program combines the skills and resources of search-and-rescue groups, avalanche teams and Flight for Life in responding to emergency situations such as avalanches or backcountry rescues.
Several Colorado counties participate in the program. In Summit County, participants include the sheriff’s department, Summit County Rescue Group, Flight for Life, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Copper Mountain Resort, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
On Tuesday, Jan. 21, the RAD team members gathered at the Flight for Life hangar at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco. The members received patches representing their participation in, and commitment to, the RAD program. Designed by Drew Gibson, the patch is full of symbolism. The words “Reperimus Obrutos” at the bottom translate to “We find what is lost” (or “buried”) in Latin. The blue background represents the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, the white cross stands for the ski patrol, the paw for avalanche dogs, the star for the sheriff’s department and the heart and wings for Flight for Life.
“We’ve got a great group here today,” said Kevin Kelble, Flight for Life paramedic and RAD coordinator. He mentioned the people who worked to get the program started in Summit County, including Flight for Life nurse Sandy Sigman, who died in a helicopter crash in 1994. Kelble praised the program’s original avalanche dogs, some of which are no longer around. He noted the team members’ professionalism and hard work.
“I think Sandy’s smiling, because that’s what she was all about in 1992,” Kelble said. “To be part of this program means you’re dedicating a lot of volunteer hours. … We’re asking a lot of you,” he continued, including that they bring their “A game” each day.
“There’s no such thing as a B game, C game, D game when you go out on these (missions),” he said. “(You all) have performed flawlessly for 22 years.”
Summit County Sheriff John Minor shook hands and handed out patches to the team members.
“We sincerely hope you will wear this with pride,” he said.
Hunter Mortensen is a member of the Breckenridge Ski Patrol and an avalanche dog handler. His dog, Tali, joined him at the ceremony, barking and looking excitedly to the helicopter.
As part of the RAD program, Mortensen and his colleagues train every month with the flight crew.
“Most people in their life never get to ride in a helicopter. These dogs get to all the time, and calmly,” he said. By continually training, he and the other handlers get the dogs used to riding safely in the helicopter. Most of them seem to love it, and sometimes, he said, the pilot will crack open a small side window for Tali to stick her nose out, just like she would in a car.
Addie Smith, of Keystone Ski Patrol, also brought her avy dog Flash.
“It’s like an honor,” she said of the decision to participate in the RAD program. “People view it that way. It’s an opportunity to be part of a really cool program. It’s more, ‘When do I get to be part of it?’”
On average, Kelble estimates that RAD deploys several times a year.
Colorado leads the nation in avalanche fatalities and already there have been several this year.
“We all know there’s going to be more,” Kelble said. Fortunately for those in trouble, the team works together to locate and rescue people in need of help.
“We’re bringing the three biggest search tools in an avalanche as fast as we can get it in there,” he said. The helicopter provides speed and transportation, while the ski patrol and rescue members provide their expertise.
The key to the success of the RAD program, according to Charles Pitman, public information officer for Summit County Rescue Group, is combining the speed of the helicopter with the medical knowledge of the crew and the rescue skills of the avalanche team and dogs.
“We really complement each other in our abilities,” he said.