Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Avalanche response: practicing now, just in case

By Barbara LaBoe

You may have dug your car out of a snowdrift a time or two, but have you uncovered a vehicle that was buried under 4 feet of snow?

That’s exactly what our Stevens Pass maintenance crews – along with several other agencies – do each year as they learn how to search for, locate and unearth vehicles buried under a snow slide. It’s a skill we hope none of them ever has to use, but it’s a vital one for the crews up on the pass.
Students learn how to use probes to locate a vehicle buried in a snow slide or avalanche.


We have maintenance workers specifically tasked with avalanche prediction and prevention. The annual avalanche response training, however, is for all of the maintenance crews, because any worker up on a mountain pass could encounter a snow slide. That’s also the reason we invite other agencies to participate – because a utility worker or law enforcement officer could be the first responder on scene and also are valuable partners to our own crews.

The class
The class is held at Berne Camp, our maintenance facility eight miles east of the Stevens Pass summit. Students first learn about each agency’s procedures so they understand what each other can and can’t do during an emergency. This helps all the agencies – such as county sheriff’s offices, ski area employees, utility workers and towing companies – coordinate on any type of emergency response. We’ve been doing this for three years and have seen our partnerships grow with each agency that takes part. This year 11 agencies participated.
Crews practice using probes to determine a buried vehicle’s location in the snow following an avalanche.


Once outside, students practice using beacons and probes to find a buried vehicle as well as the proper shovel technique to quickly find a vehicle and get occupants to safety. (Hint: Don’t dig straight down, come in a few feet over.) Then, the big finale: finding and unearthing a vehicle that instructors have buried under 4 feet of snow somewhere on the grounds. (Our buried vehicle comes from a wrecking yard).

Students aren’t timed during this training, but in real life time would be critical. That’s why we have the crews practice now when there is still time to work out any problems or ask questions.

What if you’re in an avalanche?

Of course, we work hard to reduce the risk of anyone getting caught in an avalanche on our passes, but we can never completely eliminate the risk. This year we’ve seen vehicles buried in snow slides or avalanches in nearby states such as Wyoming, Utah and California. We hope our crews never have to use these skills, but we’re glad to know they’re ready just in case.
Our crews are joined by crews from other agencies to unearth a car buried under
 4 feet of snow as part of avalanche response training in December.


What should you do if you’re ever caught in an avalanche while driving?
  • Stay in your vehicle
    • It’s much easier to locate a vehicle using the probes
    • You’re protected from further slides inside your vehicle
  • Turn off your engine to avoid asphyxiation risk
  • If you have an avalanche beacon with you, activate it; if not, turning on your flashers can help searchers
  • Never drive around a road closure sign. No one likes a closure, but these signs are there to protect both you and first responders.