Playing it safe in snow

Avalanche training day was Saturday


Ralph Stewart knows the value of being trained in snow safety. He's saved three lives in snow-related incidents in his 26-year tenure with Moffat County Search and Rescue.

"I figure, I've been directly involved in three rescues that saved somebody's life," he said, "and whatever I do from now on is well worth it."

He decided to make his experiences pay off by organizing the fourth annual avalanche training day that took place Saturday at Freeman Reservoir. He's never been in an avalanche, and hopes he never will be.

"That's what this is all about, is keeping it that way," Stewart said.

A member of the Northwestern Colorado Snowmobile Club, he geared the program toward those who enjoy the sport but opened it up to anyone interested. He invited Colorado State Parks rangers to help direct the course.

And because of recent slides near Buffalo Pass and Park City, Utah, the issue seemed to weigh heavy on the minds of some snowmobilers, including participant George Miner, who serves on search and rescue with Stewart.

"In this community, we haven't seen a lot of avalanches until the last few years," Miner said. "Everyone's getting odd weather nowadays, and we're seeing some of it here in northwest Colorado."

State parks ranger Ron Dellacroce demonstrated this by digging a snow pit and comparing the layers he found.

"Knowing how the snow changes and weather patterns change, we can learn the history of the snow," he said.

What he's looking for when he digs these pits are changes in the consistency of the snow as it gets nearer to the ground. It's these combinations of slab and soft snow that can be lethal.

But Dellacroce provided tips to the men who showed up on how to help achieve a happy ending in a dangerous situation.

He described the importance of staying calm and having one person in the group take charge of the search.

Others should line up close to one another to poke through the snow with probes, or long, skinny rods, feeling for anything that could be a body. They probe to the right, left and center of where they are standing before moving forward as a line.

Behind them are searchers with shovels, ready to dig at any sign there might be a person underneath the powder.

All of this is facilitated by the use of beacons, if victims and rescuers have them. Each transmits and receives signals to help those who are searching find the victims.

Dellacroce urges those with beacons to wear them as close to the body as possible, because they are easily torn off as a person is dragged through the snow.

He understands keeping a cool head is difficult in these life-or-death situations, but he reminded participants to stay focused and not injure anyone else in their efforts.

"Be careful not to let that adrenaline grab you and make you the next victim," he said

Dellacroce also had advice for those who may be caught in an avalanche.

"As you feel the speed start to slow, try to figure out which way is up and which is down," he said.

Watching water drops on one's goggles is a useful tool for this, he said. Also, finding an air pocket is critical, as the first three to five minutes likely will determine the outcome of the situation, according to Dellacroce. This is especially important for rescuers.

"You are the No. 1 responder at that time," he said. "Don't go get help."

He emphasized the importance of quick, thoughtful action and said that before people go out into the back country they should have all the necessary rescue gear, plenty of batteries and lots of practice in safety techniques.

"You're kind of helping yourself," Dellacroce said. "But you're really helping out the guys you ride with ... and people we don't even know."

He's pleased that the club organizes the training session and stressed his appreciation for everyone who took part.

"When I get into trouble, I'm probably going to see your faces," he said, "and I'm pretty psyched about that."

Michelle Perry can be reached at 824-7031 or

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