Snowed Under

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be buried alive? I have to admit it was never exactly on my top ten list of things to think about, until it actually happened.

And if it weren’t for a troop of LDS Boy Scouts and Hoover the Wonder Dog, I’d probably still be buried six feet under snow today.

Of course, if it weren’t for the Scouts, I wouldn’t have been buried in the first place. On one of the coldest, snowiest days Salt Lakers can remember, Scouts from Parleys First Ward and members of Utah area search and rescue units helped each other stage an avalanche rescue drill. I volunteered to be one of the victims. (Okay, so I didn’t actually volunteer. I got talked into it.)

We all met in the church parking lot early one Saturday morning, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the dark skies, subzero temperatures, impassable roads, and snow flurries would postpone our little exercise. No way. These Scouts were Wasatch Mountain born and bred. They live for snow. They ski, snowshoe, and snowboard on it all winter long. The things they were about to learn would be extremely useful to them. And they knew how important it was that the search and rescue dogs get some practice.

“We’re always in the mountains in the winter,” said Dan Kaelberer, 15. “It’s important to learn about the threat of avalanches and what to do if one happens.”

Tyler Olsen was especially unaffected by the bad weather. This would be the culmination of his Eagle Scout service project. He’d already been to sporting goods stores in the valley, distributing free backcountry safety literature for their customers. He’d helped at a special prep seminar for the Scouts, where they watched an avalanche video and received special instruction from Dan Davis, their Young Men secretary and owner of Hoover, a search and rescue dog.

So about 25 of us, including Scouts, their leaders, and a few news people, piled into four-wheel drive vehicles and headed for the hills—make that mountains. We’re talking Rockies.

Once we got up out of the Salt Lake Valley and up to Guardsman Pass where the drill was to be held, the weather wasn’t half as bad, and the scenery was incredible. Snow was everywhere, generously frosting the trees and covering the ground in a great, thick blanket. It looked soft and inviting—harmless, even. That’s probably what a lot of people think just before they put themselves in avalanche danger.

“A lot of people don’t realize that avalanches can happen so easily,” said Clark Whisenant, 13. “This project made me want to do a special research project on them for school. Avalanches are really dangerous.”

The search and rescue people had already arrived at the site. They’d brought dogs, snowmobiles, and an intimidating snow cat that moved like a tank, made strange noises, and seemed to be able to transport a number of people just about anywhere.

Before I could pull on my gloves, the Scouts were out running around with the dogs, leaping into huge snow piles and throwing snowballs at each other. “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” I thought, as I took a big juicy snowball right in the back of the head.

It was about a half-mile hike from the area where we left our cars into the site where the search and rescue people decided to stage the drill. Some of the Scouts walked, carrying the shovels and other equipment they’d brought along. Some went ahead on snowmobiles to prepare the site. As for me, I decided to ride the snow cat in. The dogs were riding in on it, and I wanted them to get acquainted with my scent so it wouldn’t take them long to find me when it came time for the rescue.

Once we got to the site, everyone went to work. The area was large and flat, with snow piled deep. They had been careful to select an area that really would be free of avalanche danger. The first order of the day was testing the snow, cutting a big, vertical block of it and looking at the layers for instability. If the boys were just out for a normal day of cross-country skiing, this would have determined where or if they would go in that area.

Next, they had to make the area look as if an avalanche had just occurred. That meant smearing injury makeup all over some faces, partially burying some people, and digging snow caves in which to bury others.

“It’s kind of fun to have injury makeup on your face and then be buried in the snow up to your shoulders,” said Andy Brinton. Now that’s an attitude for you! Since I was one of the lucky others who would be buried completely, I’d have to see if I could start thinking like Andy.

I’ll say this for the Scouts. All that snow camping they do every winter pays off. They dug me a snow cave about six-feet deep that was actually rather comfortable—just big enough for me to lie in. I crawled in, and then they handed me a walkie-talkie “just in case.” “Just in case of WHAT?” I wanted to ask. But they had already started filling in the entrance with snow blocks, followed by loose snow.

Now, it’s really not that bad in a snow cave. The natural insulation keeps you pretty warm. And since the snow usually has a density of 40–60 percent, there’s plenty of air. Still, I was depending on Dan to keep his promise that Hoover would have me out of there in 20 minutes at the most.

Dan O’Conner of American Search Dogs, Inc., whose dog Anderl would sniff out some of the other boys, explained to us that a dog could pick up a scent after a person has been buried only a few minutes. “The dog thinks, ‘I can smell the person, but I can’t see him, so I’d better go find him.’ That’s the name of the game.”

It wasn’t long before I heard feet crunching in the snow above me, and muffled voices talking in an excited tone. Soon I could hear frenzied digging, and then I saw the welcome sight of a pair of brown paws, then a black nose, breaking through the ceiling of my snow cave. In no time Hoover was all over me, licking my face and playing tug-of-war with my glove. He was just as happy to see me as I was to see him. He’d won the game. He scooted back up to the surface where the others were waiting, my glove in his mouth, proving that he’d found me. The others congratulated him, then helped me up and out.

What I saw when I got to the surface fascinated me. With remarkable precision, the Scouts and rescue people had organized themselves so that almost every inch of the avalanche area was being covered. The scenario was that a group of Scouts had been in the area when an avalanche occurred.

In one area, the avalanche “witnesses” were being interviewed, and the “injured” victims were being treated nearby. Another part of the area was being swept by people bearing electronic devices that would pick up signals from the transceivers that the Scouts might have been wearing at the a time of the disaster. In still another area, they’d organized a probe pole line, in which the members sank long, thin metal poles into the deep snow every foot or so, waiting for someone to sound the ominous cry, “I’ve got a hit,” if they struck something.

“I’d never been in a probe line, or anything like that, and it was really interesting,” said Joseph Mecham. “If there really was an avalanche, like at a ski resort, and you were a bystander, chances are they’d recruit you to help in the probe line if you knew what you were doing.”

When all the “victims” had been found, we gathered back at the snow cat to go over what we’d learned that day. The Scouts had been shown how to avoid avalanche-prone areas, how to be safer in winter sports, and how to assist search and rescue units if they need help when an avalanche occurs. The dogs had learned a lot too—it always helps them to sharpen their tracking skills and to be around groups of people in a rescue situation.

I’d learned all of the above, plus I’d gained a little confidence, knowing that I could handle some rather severe winter conditions.

But even with our newfound knowledge and skill, we agreed with Hoover when Dan asked him what it’s like to be caught in an avalanche.

“Rough!” Hoover responded. Or maybe that was “Ruff.”

It’s Snow Joke

If you spend a lot of time in the backcountry during the winter, here are a few precautions you’ll want to take:

  1. 1.

    Have an awareness of basic avalanche safety, backcountry survival techniques, and how to recognize and treat hypothermia.

  2. 2.

    Check the avalanche report for conditions at your destination. You can usually find the telephone number in the local directory.

  3. 3.

    Dress right for the weather conditions. When it’s snowing, make sure your shoes, clothes, and gloves are waterproof and warm. Take extras in your pack.

  4. 4.

    Make sure someone at home knows where you’re going and about what time to expect you; then don’t be late returning. If you’re habitually late, people might not start worrying about you soon enough.

  5. 5.

    Take along a compass and know how to use it. Remember from which direction you started.

  6. 6.

    Know that conditions can change rapidly in the backcountry. Note them, and be ready to pack it in if the weather changes suddenly.

  7. 7.

    Stay away from the bottom and summits of hills or mountains with steep slopes, lots of snow, and few trees or rocks. They’re the most likely avalanche candidates.

  8. 8.

    It’s a good idea to carry a shovel and a knife with you. A transceiver or a small device that sends out a beeping signal is also helpful. In case you get in trouble, rescue people have a device that will pick up your signal and find you faster.

  9. 9.

    It’s also wise to take along equipment that will help you if you get stuck for a while. Things like matches, a candle, a space blanket, water, high energy food, a cup, and a mirror for signaling are helpful.

  10. 10.

    Just in case you are caught in a slide, try to keep a hand or a pole above the surface. Your rescue will be 100 percent easier and quicker if part of you or your equipment can be seen.

  11. 11.

    Try to stay calm and positive in an emergency situation. Your attitude could save your life, or the life of someone else.

  12. 12.

    Never go into the backcountry alone. It’s always safer to take along a friend.

[photos] Photography by Laird Roberts

[photo] Salt Lake Scouts like Andy Brinton literally got buried in their work digging snow caves to hide in while rescue dogs tried to find them.

[photos] Miles Homan treats “survivor” Rob Christiansen while rescue dog Ollie searches for others. Andy Brinton pretends to find others by piercing the snow with a probe pole.

[photos] After being buried in a snow cave, there’s no greater sight to Dave Brinton than the brown nose and paws of an eager rescue dog. Scouts learned what could mean the difference between life and death.