By K. S. Brooks / Silverado Express Newspaper

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My rescuer, Carmella of Columbia Basin Search Dogs. Photo by K.S. Brooks

It’s white, but it’s dark. Your arms are pinned. You can’t move your legs. Are you up or down? You can’t tell. Muffled voices filter down through the packed snow, at least you think that. Do they know you’re there? You want to scream, but you don’t want to waste precious air. Terror overrules logic, so you scream bloody murder. Your heart is pounding in your ears so loudly that you’re not sure you’ll be able to hear anyone answer you. Tears pour down your face.

You jerk when something pokes you. “I’m here!” you yell.

“He’s alive!” you hear.

The sound of shovels cutting into the snow brings even more tears. “Hold on, we’re coming! Hang in there!” they call out to you.

Suddenly, it gets lighter. Death won’t take you today.

You realize, though, if you hadn’t been wearing a transceiver and been skiing with friends, you would probably already be dead.

People don’t seem to take avalanche or tree-well risk too seriously, despite the fact that in North America, 42 people on average each year are killed in avalanches and hundreds more are injured per KBYG.org. And, after talking to experts and watching chilling videos on YouTube of people who have been victims (just Google “tree well victims”), I’ve decided that it pays to be educated and equipped when going out in the snow.

While we don’t tend to have many avalanches here in our region, tree wells are common. “A tree well is a void or depression that forms around the base of a tree can and contain a mix of low hanging branches, loose snow, and air,” it states in the safety section on the 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort website. The site goes on to say that 90% of “people involved in Tree Well/SIS hazard research experiments could NOT rescue themselves.” Many times, a skier or snowboarder will end up inverted and will suffocate. There has been one tree well death on 49 in 21 years according to a February 10, 2017 Spokesman-Review article.

In 2018, the Globe and Mail reported on tree well deaths in an article entitled “Mountain experts alarmed after five people die in tree wells in a single week.”

The 49 Degrees North ski resort has “signage up all over the resort and we have an ongoing education program,” Eric Bakken, general manager at 49, said about tree wells. “We are seeing more and more self-reported issues and have people call us from their cell phones who are in a tree well.”

Risk of an avalanche at 49 is far less likely. “Avalanches are possible on much of our terrain, but not likely as the terrain is regularly skier compacted. We do occasionally close terrain due to avalanche risk, but the weather cycles that produce conditions conducive to avalanche are not common,” Eric explained. “Much of our ski terrain that is steep enough to avalanche is very popular and regularly open and skier-packed or is gladed and in the trees and less likely to slide.”

Whether it be tree wells or avalanches, the general rule is that you have about 10 minutes of oxygen. Again, this is a general rule; your mileage may vary. So what do you do when this happens to you? The best thing to do is — not have this happen to you. It’s much easier to prevent the situation than to get out of one.

After speaking with many experts, the solution is quite simple, really: “knowledge, planning, and carrying the proper safety equipment are the keys…” according to Avalanche Canada. While carrying the proper equipment is important, knowing how to use it is even more important. One video I watched involved about five people trying to get their friend, who’d gone in head first, out of a tree well. Only one of the five new how to assemble the shovel.

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K.S. Brooks “in the hole.” Photo courtesy Robert Rivard

Liz Riggs Meder, the recreation program director at the non-profit organization AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education), has some sound advice: “If you’re skiing in back country, you need to be with partners. There is safety in numbers — the optimal group size is three to five people. That comes from studies and intuitively it makes sense.” If you can’t be out there in a group — and this isn’t exclusive to skiers — this also makes good sense for snowboarders, snowshoers, snowmobilers, and anyone who’s out there adventuring in mountainous areas — “have at least one partner, because that person is the one who is going to be your lifeline in the event of an avalanche. Partners all need to have and know how to use a beacon (avalanche transceiver), a shovel, and a probe,” Liz said.

Honestly, having your own “posse” and knowing how to work the equipment is the best way to prevent tragedy, especially in the back country. On ski hills, it makes sense as well — a transceiver can help rescuers find you a lot faster. Just remember the 10 minute rule. How long do you think it will take rescuers to get to you? It makes good sense to have one with you, and that person can call for help if needed.

If it came to the point where the ski patrol had to do an avalanche rescue, you might discover that one of the crew members is quite furry. Many ski areas are now employing avalanche rescue dogs to expedite the rescue process. With an average avalanche burial depth of 1.4 meters (or over four-and-a-half feet) of compressed snow, how in the world could a dog find a person in a vast field of crumpled trees and boulders of ice?

“The human body is always off-gassing, whether living or deceased. For a living person, we have respiration, perspiration, digestion, and all of the body processes that produce byproducts and waste, including shedding of skin rafts, etc.,” Tracy Wessel of Columbia Basin Search Dogs explained. The whole thing seemed amazing to me, so on a Saturday morning in February, I headed up to 49 Degrees North to see for myself during the avalanche rescue dog training that was being held there.

Never satisfied with only part of a story, I volunteered to be buried in snow so that the dogs could find me. And each time, they did, without fail. While being buried under a few feet of snow was unnerving at first, it doesn’t come close to emulating the horrifying scenario of an actual avalanche victim. If you think you will dig your way out of an avalanche — guess again. I tried at one point, out of curiosity (okay, I may have been freaking out just a little), and that snow is so compacted that it’s like frozen concrete. There’s no chance fingers are going to get the job done.

There is something, however, that can help: an avalanche airbag. These clever devices come in a backpack or a vest and are actually available locally at Clark’s Marine and Powersports in Colville. I stopped in so that store manager Jim Martin could show me how they work. It turns out that each backpack or vest has a little canister of either air or an oxygen/CO2 combination that inflates the air bag immediately after you pull the rip cord. They have all the gear there, in fact, which includes probes, backpacks, beacons, radios, satellite radios, and shovels.

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Jim Martin models an avalanche vest at Clark’s Marine and Powersports. Photo by K.S. Brooks

“It really hits home for me,” Jim continued. “I ride with my 30- and 22-year-old sons, my 14-year-old daughter, and my wife. I don’t want to dig my kids, wife, or my friends out or have anyone have to try to find me. The ultimate goal is not to get in that position.”

Sadly, Jim has plenty of friends who have been involved in avalanches — in three separate incidents over a two-year period — and they were all snowmobiling.

Jim agrees with Liz about having the gear and knowing how to use it. In fact, each year in November, Clark’s has been hosting an avalanche training seminar to raise awareness, teach folks how to use the gear, how to identify avalanche-ready snow, and more. Avalanche survivor Jeremy Hanke and snowmobile industry pro Duncan Lee will be teaching the seminar again this year [2020, which was canceled due to the coronavirus].

“It’s just like the fire department wouldn’t send guys with no training into a fire,” Jim said. “Practice and training helps for the real thing and prevents pure chaos.”

In December 2008, 11 people died in one weekend in avalanches. For that entire year, there were 36 deaths, and 12 of them were snowmobilers. While there are many hardcore snowmobilers who take courses at ski areas so they can learn to check the snow and use the gear, there are still many who feel like they don’t need to be concerned about avalanches. But they do now, more than ever. “Now with these machines being super capable of traveling in the mountains — it’s very easy to get into avalanche terrain, and super fast at that,” Liz said. “It’s not something they ever had to be worried about before … At a ski area, you have the ski patrol and operations mitigating avalanche hazards — outside of the ski area — it’s considered back country. If you leave the boundaries, there will be signs stating you’re at risk for avalanche.” But those signs aren’t posted in the wilderness, of course. “For snowshoers and snowmobilers, they may not be aware of the threat of avalanches or that they are in avalanche terrain because that signage doesn’t usually exist at trail heads,” she explained.

Liz recommends visiting https://kbyg.org/ — Know Before You Go — for some great tips on staying safe.

We are blessed to live in a beautiful, natural area. But sometimes, Mother Nature can be cruel. Get educated — don’t be a victim.

This article appeared in the March 13, 2020 edition of the Silverado Express Newspaper, as well as a January edition of the Chewelah Independent. For more information on the Silverado, go to https://facebook.com/silveradoexpress/

Award-winning novelist and photographer. Fearless leader of IndiesUnlimited. Wilderness hermit, intrepid road warrior. Gluten-free guru. Slightly opinionated.

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