As 17 men and women bored into the cement-like snow, even using chainsaws to grind into the ice, an avalanche released behind them, burying their exit road.
“That really showed us how reactive the snowpack was — just riddled with uncertainty and you really just didn’t know,” said Leo Lloyd, a 36-year veteran of La Plata County Search and Rescue who joined his San Juan County colleagues on a grim mission last month to recover the bodies of three men buried in an avalanche near Ophir Pass.
It took two more days of digging to recover the men. Six weeks earlier, and a few hundred yards away, the team had recovered the bodies of two skiers killed in an avalanche.
“Even if you’ve been doing this a long time, it’s still difficult,” Lloyd said. “You get good at putting that image in the back of your head, but all that never goes away. We have some psychological support and we work to get help to our people. But sometimes, it’s hard to admit when you need some help.”
Rescuers in San Juan County have had a challenging winter. That’s following an extraordinarily busy summer and fall.
Most of the state’s 2,800 search and rescue volunteers know that weariness. Teams across Colorado were exceptionally busy last summer as Colorado’s hills crawled with campers, hikers, bikers and paddlers finding respite from the pandemic in the backcountry.
When winter backcountry gear sales exploded in the fall alongside resorts announcing capacity limits and restrictions at ski areas, high-country search and rescue teams braced themselves.
The COVID restrictions and capacity caps at ski areas were “a perfect storm of bad formula,” said Kimmet Holland, a 40-year veteran of emergency services who directs Silverton’s Emergency Medical Services crew, all of whom are certified in avalanche safety and high-alpine rescue skills.
That storm worsened with a spectacularly sketchy snowpack that began shedding large avalanches with every new snowfall. “The worst snow conditions in Colorado in the last 10 years,” Holland said.
The largest worry heading into the 2020-21 season was about a flood of newcomers to avalanche terrain. A host of state agencies joined search and rescue teams to promote avalanche awareness and backcountry safety. But the 11 men killed in Colorado avalanches so far this season have been older, most of them with years of backcountry experience.
The 2020-21 season has been particularly deadly for backcountry travelers. Across the U.S, 33 have died in avalanches, with 26 skiers, snowmobilers and climbers killed in February alone, marking the darkest month for avalanche fatalities in more than a century.
“And we still have a lot of winter left,” said Jim Donovan, the emergency manager for San Juan County and director of Silverton Avalanche School.
Donovan’s San Juan County Search and Rescue team was ready for a busy winter. A few close calls in the area last season, including a complicated rescue of a snowboarder near Telluride in March 2020, left the San Juan team on edge. After the hectic summer and the recovery of five men — two beloved Durango locals and three influential men from Eagle — they still are.
“The impact to the team was definitely real,” Donovan said.
Cumulative trauma can break in an avalanche of anguish
Search and rescue team members can be the overlooked patients in a traumatic mission, said Laura McGladrey.
She’s with CU Anschutz Medical School’s Stress Trauma Adversity Research and Treatment Center, working with cops, emergency service providers, search-and-rescue teams as well as guide services and ski patrols.
Stress accumulation from exposure to traumatic missions can build up like a snowpack, McGladrey said. It starts gradually and following a big event, people can break in an avalanche of anguish.
Search and rescue teams have all sorts of protocols and plans for physical injuries. But McGladrey tells rescuers the most likely injury they will suffer is psychological from the stress of traumatic events.
“And no one really prepares them for that kind of injury,” she said. “From my standpoint this exposure-type injury of stress accumulation and the impact of watching people die and seeing grieving families starts to build up over time.
“You already have the fatigue and exhaustion of a busy year,” she said, “and then a big event comes up. It sets the stage for people to get overwhelmed.”
Rescuers often internalize the trauma of their volunteer work and think it’s just them when they lose their zeal or fall into funk, McGladrey said. After more than 20 years in emergency medicine, she said the “worst stuff I’ve ever seen” was as a volunteer for Chaffee County Search and Rescue in the 1990s. When she works with longtime rescuers and asks about events that stand out, almost all of them, she said, talk about a victim’s family “that they just can’t get out of their head.”
In the early days of search and rescue in Colorado, “people just toughed it out,” Donovan said, “but the mental health of first responders, from dispatch to law enforcement to volunteers, cannot be underestimated.”
“There’s just a cascade of people who are impacted by these calls,” Donovan said.
Each reaction to traumatic exposure can be helped with specific strategies. McGladrey has an operational-stress guide she follows, part of a military program. She checks in with rescuers three days, three weeks and three months after a traumatic event, like recovering bodies from an avalanche. Are they losing sleep, are they having nightmares, are they depressed or feeling out of control?
“Laura is helping us get better about being aware and thinking like ‘Hmm, are you OK with what we just saw, because that was pretty gruesome and it’s OK to not be OK, you know?’” said Dawn Wilson with the Alpine Rescue Team. “Laura does an amazing job at making us more aware and being less machine and being able to talk about things we have seen.”
“She is vital to the future of how we keep rescuers safe,” said Jeff Sparhawk, the president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association.
San Juan Search and Rescue’s critical-incident stress debrief” after the grueling recovery of Seth Bossung, Andy Jessen and Adam Palmer, the Eagle men killed near Silverton, included a therapist who worked with team members.
Legislative relief for overwhelmed rescuers
Overwhelmed and underfunded search and rescue teams last year were hoping lawmakers could revive legislation that died last year as the pandemic swept through the state. The legislation from last year would have directed the Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan to provide more support to SAR teams, which see about 2,800 volunteers logging 500,000 hours a year responding to more than 3,600 calls for help. The legislation hoped to identify ways to offer volunteers better training as well as mental-health counseling.
A similar bill — House Bill 1118 Backcountry Search and Rescue in Colorado — died in its first committee hearing earlier this month.
“We need to arm these volunteers with the skills and tools necessary to deal with this job. These are not your average volunteers … and they can respond to incidents that are very stressful and very traumatic,” Sparhawk said. “And there is also cumulative stress. These stress impacts — stress injuries — we want to make sure we are not messing up people’s lives, you know. They are just trying to help.”
The last time Colorado lawmakers worked to support search and rescue was in 1987, when they directed 25 cents from hunting and fishing licenses as well as a portion of registration from boats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles to the Search and Rescue Fund, which reimburses teams for mission costs. They also created the Colorado Search and Rescue Card so residents and visitors could support local teams. (Play outside? Buy the 5-year card here.)
The 25 cents from hunting and fishing licenses that helps cover the costs of missions “is a huge deal for us sheriffs, especially in small counties,” said Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola.
No backup for emergency responders
As Colorado’s high-country communities return to normal, jobs will come roaring back and the ability to swiftly assemble a team of volunteers could be pinched as rescuers work their paying jobs. There is a growing concern among the state’s 46 search and rescue teams about responding to calls with fewer people in the coming months as employment levels rise, Sparhawk said.
There is no back-up for search and rescue. If a team goes down, there’s a chance calls for help will go unheeded, Sparhawk said, noting that no team collapsed this winter, which was a concern if members were exposed to COVID-19 during a mission and had to quarantine.
“It’s been great to see so many different groups and agencies banding together. Snowmobilers, backcountry skiers, the outdoor recreation industry, firefighters to state, regional and local governments. There is no lack of support, but there are a whole lot of things that need to get done to keep this system working,” Sparhawk said.
There are some search teams that are having a quiet winter. Lake County Search and Rescue calls are down compared to last winter. But they had a very busy summer. Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Rescue Group responded to 215 calls in 2020, its second highest ever. This winter, calls are pacing about the same as the previous year, but the group has spent more hours on prolonged, complex missions. And Boulder’s rescue group is seeing a solid number of new recruits, said Dr. Alison Sheets, medical director for the group.
Calls to the always busy Alpine Rescue Team are up 132% so far this year.
“When it rains it pours,” Alpine Rescue veteran Dale Atkins said. “And for us, it’s been a rainy stretch for sure.”
People have died in avalanches in counties all around Summit County, where several skiers have been caught but amazingly escaped serious injury.
Summit County Rescue Group responded to 42 calls for help in January and February, which beat last year’s record of 31 for the same two months. In the first two weeks of January, Summit County Rescue Group fielded 11 911 calls, including several busy days that involved rescue missions conducted at the same time on opposite ends of the county.
While a team was on Quandary Peak searching for a lost hiker in a snowstorm in January, another call came in for a lost man with health problems below Buffalo Mountain. Some rescuers worked both searches, which ended with both hikers found and escorted to safety.
“They may have been out of the mix if we had another call within a few hours,” said Charles Pitman, a 16-year veteran of the Summit Rescue Group, which received an high of 194 calls for help in 2020, up from 144 in 2019. “So for our team, the impact isn’t so much on equipment as it is on personnel.”
Rescue teams typically gather monthly for in-depth training sessions. They take avalanche education courses and learn how to work with helicopters and other equipment. They also host regular events to entice new members into the fold, keeping a steady stream of fresh recruits on the call list. This year, the pandemic has hindered both recruitment and training.
That can be a blow to search and rescue teams in the high country, where rescuers need technical expertise. And in mountain towns, where the cost of living is high, young members of SAR teams come and go as they work to pay rent and living expenses. Turnover can be high.
Record-setting numbers of avalanche deaths and rescues is shining a light on the high-risk, unpaid work of SAR teams.
“I think many SAR teams around the country sort of fly under the radar,” Pitman said. “Unless it’s a high-profile mission, many people don’t even know they have teams in their area. But we are meeting and training and fielding members for missions all the time.”
Pitman expects the spiking calls for help to continue through the year. People have reconnected with Colorado’s backcountry. They’ve bought all the toys for playing in the woods. And their numbers are growing.
“I think the big challenge for many of them is when they want to do something way out of their ability to cope with the conditions,” Pitman said. “A person who is from the flatland or sea level, who wants to do their first 14er, probably shouldn’t do it in the winter in a snow storm. It’s tough enough in the summer in perfect weather. Yet we deal with those all the time.”
Lloyd, down in Durango, is seeing the toll of exhuming bodies from avalanche debris on younger volunteers who this season endured the ugliest of search and rescue missions back-to-back.
“It’s been difficult for our people who are new volunteers who have never had to do this before but still have to react and be professional,” Lloyd said. “How you find balance with the emotional consequences and what has to be done, it’s something that never gets easy.”
Lloyd was among the first rescuers to respond to the Ophir Pass avalanche that killed the three Eagle County men on the first day of February. He was on a snowmobile when he came upon the four survivors around 8 p.m. They had spent the last several hours desperately digging for their friends. One of the survivors, who was partially buried but dug out by his three partners, was still wearing his inflated avalanche airbag. He’d lost his skis and injured his knee. He was limping along on snowshoes he had fashioned out of tree limbs.
“They were so emotionally and physically spent. But they were very good at telling us exactly where they had been,” Lloyd said. “The next day we went in there early and the whole team was floored with what those four guys had done to get to their friends.”
The kindness of strangers flows both ways
If Silverton were a little town on the Eastern Plains, rescuers would be responding to about 20 calls a year, said Holland, the director of Silverton’s EMS who uses that example to negotiate taxpayer support for his emergency services.
Holland’s wish list for his crew, which was run by eight volunteers when he arrived in 2013 and now has six salaried, highly-trained paramedics, goes beyond training, recruitment, counseling and equipment.
“Just some simple things. Like using CDOT message boards to remind people of avalanche and backcountry hazards. Anything we can do to remind people to be careful and be thinking about risks,” Holland said. “Something like what you see when you pull into a national forest and see the updated fire hazard.”
Holland agrees with Lloyd, calling the rescue efforts by survivors of the Ophir Pass slide “extraordinary.”
His team recruited heavy machinery from La Plata County and broke several shovels and damaged other equipment in the three-day recovery.
Holland said the response from the community of Eagle has been overwhelming. Money has poured in to replace equipment. Letters and notes have buoyed the team’s spirits.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and I’ve never seen this kind of outpouring of love and appreciation,” Holland said. “We look at you big counties as our big brothers and we certainly have felt the love from Eagle.”
Search and rescue teams often forge unique bonds with friends and family of victims. It’s common to hear about families contributing to team coffers, helping to buy equipment or even, in the case of Mountain Rescue Aspen, helping build a training facility.
But surely there’s a better way to support search and rescue in Colorado than relying on the kindness of strangers.
“Everyone on the team has been impacted by that outpouring,” said Donovan. “But it definitely would be really good for the state to put more mechanisms for funding and helping out with recruitment and so it’s not just scraping by every year.”
Donovan said funding through the COSAR program is critical to search and rescue efforts across the state, “but it needs to be strengthened.” He sees volunteer firefighters receive a stipend that helps offset missing work during an emergency and the cost of personal equipment and wonders how a similar program could work for search and rescue volunteers.
“It’s tough to maintain this program on the backs of volunteers. Outdoor recreation is a top industry in Colorado and we really do need more robust support for teams across the state,” Donovan said. “It’s not like recreation is going to slow down.”