CRAIG — Gathering their avalanche tools after a short gear check, a small band of about 15 snowmobilers revved their engines Saturday, Jan. 12, and set off into the miles of snowy trails surrounding Black Mountain, hoping to learn some valuable lessons.
For more than a decade, volunteers with Moffat County Search and Rescue have been training near Craig — honing their skills in case the snow gives way and buries an unsuspecting backcountry visitor.
A handful of Colorado Parks and Wildlife rangers were also on hand Saturday to guide the volunteers, including members of Northwest Colorado Snowmobile Club.
“There are basically three essential pieces of equipment when traveling in avalanche terrain,” said Mark Lehman, acting manager of Yampa River State Park and a senior ranger with some 12 years of avalanche training experience. Lehman’s tools of the trade include a beacon that can be set to broadcast or receive a homing signal.
“What this does is it sends out a signal at a regular interval, so if you were to get buried in an avalanche, then everyone involved in a search party can go to the search function so they can pick up on any signal,” Lehman explained, as his fellow rangers and volunteers prepped their snowmobiles.
Once a strong signal is located, a long probe is deployed deep into the snow to better locate a potential victim.
“You can feel what the ground feels like with this,” Lehman said as he extended a long probe similar to a tent pole. “If you were to catch a backpack, clearly it’s a very different feel — a leg or a torso or someone’s helmet will be a lot different feel than if you’re just hitting the bottom or the dirt.”
Once a potential victim is located, it’s a race to dig them out carefully.
“Once you get a positive probe strike and hit something that doesn’t feel like the ground, that’s when you get to digging,” Lehman said. “There’s a tactical way of digging someone out as well.”
Barry Barnes serves as captain of the Moffat County Search and Rescue team, and while he said he hasn’t had to put his 14 years of avalanche training to use in a real-life scenario yet, both he and 1st Lt. Dale Clark are ready to act at a moment’s notice.
“Response time is very important, because usually, you really don’t have a lot of time,” Barnes said. “If someone is stuck inside an avalanche, they don’t have a lot of time.”
Clark said if Moffat County Search and Rescue volunteers were activated, it might take crews an hour to reach Black Mountain from Craig.
“It’s a half-hour here and then to unload, then another 20 or 30 minutes probably to get to some of the first avalanche areas up there,” Clark said.
Amidst the group of volunteers was Dale Reed, who moved to the area from Texas in the spring.
Reed said avoiding avalanches wasn’t the only thing he hoped to learn Saturday.
“Number one, how to ride a snowmobile,” Reed said. “Being from Texas, the snow conditions are totally new to me. I’m an avid outdoorsman. Hopefully, when I’m out here, I’ll be a little safer, so I won’t have to call Clint and them to come find me.”
Clint Scofield, a volunteer with Moffat County Search and Rescue, stood nearby and chuckled at Reed’s half-joke.
“If somebody gets lost, we’re usually the people they call,” Scofield said. “Or, if someone is injured up there.”
According to Colorado’s Avalanche Information Center, avalanche conditions for the Steamboat Springs and Craig areas were moderate, meaning there are “heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features.” Those engaging in snow sports are encouraged to “evaluate snow and terrain conditions carefully.”
The moderate avalanche risk is the second of five risk categories, five being the highest risk.
The highest avalanche risk category in Colorado Saturday was seen in the North San Juan area, which was under a “considerable” risk of avalanche, the third of five risk categories.
Lehman said those considering backcountry excursions into the snow should know what conditions existed in the days and weeks before they plan to leave. Doing one’s homework when it comes to how weather affects conditions on the ground, he said, is of vital importance.
“Educate yourself,” Lehman said. “If you aren’t familiar with the snow conditions, look at the forecast. If all you do is look at the forecast on the day you ride, you’re kinda just getting a snapshot of what the conditions are that day. That’s better than doing nothing at all, but if you look at the forecast every day, you can kind of get a better feel of the problems that existed early in the season that may come into play on how you’re riding today.”
Contact Clay Thorp at 970-875-1795 or firstname.lastname@example.org.