Greg Stiller heard the whir of the arriving helicopter. Blades whipping the air, it blew snow over the small openings he’d been peeking through from the hole he was buried in. He could no longer see the sky. He was stuck on his side, curled in a fetal position, with a big enough pocket around his face to breathe in but not enough to move. The snow around his body felt like concrete.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been buried. Maybe 20 minutes? After the helicopter landed, he didn’t hear anything until a while later, when a muffled voice made it through the snow. Stiller yelled back but didn’t get a response. The next thing he heard was the crunch of shovels moving through the surface.

“When they start digging down on you, you’re thinking, ‘Someone’s gonna hit me in the head with a shovel,’” Stiller says now. “The ski patroller that got to me, he was terrific. He was digging like a crazy man. Once he got close, he slowed down, and then he started talking.”

The rescuer comforted Stiller and said he was going to dig a channel for air to flow through. Once he finished, he left to search the snowfield for more victims, assuring Stiller that he’d return and extricate him once his team was sure they’d found everyone who was buried.

Stiller, an emergency medicine doctor and medical director for Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team, was relieved to be found. It didn’t matter that this was a training mission and he’d volunteered to be buried. It didn’t matter that he was bundled in multiple layers, wrapped in a tarp, and lying on a sleeping pad under the snow with a radio he could use to call for help. He’d participated in enough real avalanche rescues with fatal outcomes to appreciate every success, even when it’s just practice.

“I have a lot of respect for people who come out of that hole and are able to smile,” he says.

How to Plan a Mock Avalanche Rescue Mission

A Flight for Life helicopter flies over the site of the mock rescue mission. Photo by Sean McConnell

The mock mission, which occurred at Loveland Pass on January 23, was months in the making. For the third year in a row, Bob Feroldi, an Alpine Rescue Team technical specialist, organized the session, which involved multiple agencies including Loveland Ski Patrol, Flight for Life, and Clear Creek County’s Fire Authority, EMS, and Sheriff’s Office.

The mission was designed to simulate a real-world scenario: a mass casualty avalanche incident with multiple burials and victims experiencing health complications.

The day before, Feroldi and other volunteers buried two life-size dummies in the snowfield and dug additional holes for the living victims. Stiller was one of two people who willingly descended into the snow that Tuesday morning before the mock mission kicked off.

“We try to make it as realistic as possible, from the callout to the response to the actual recovery of the subjects to the transport of the injured subjects,” Feroldi says. “And we try to do the training in real time. We don’t do it slowly. We do it just as if it was a real emergency.”

How a Mock Avalanche Rescue Runs

Avalanche rescues require a lot of interagency cooperation, plus a broad spectrum of skills among responders. When someone calls in an avalanche in Clear Creek County, the 911 dispatcher contacts the county sheriff and the different agencies. The Alpine Rescue Team often takes the lead on backcountry missions, but the all-volunteer group works closely with other agencies for transportation, emergency medical care, and, in the case of avalanches, support finding people below the surface.

For this year’s mock mission, Feroldi acted as the reporting party: He made the initial call, and the dispatcher passed the mock avalanche report on to the other agencies. Everyone participating in the mock mission was staged and ready in a parking lot about four miles away, but they weren’t allowed to leave for the scene until they were individually paged by the dispatcher. “They normally would not arrive simultaneously,” Feroldi says. “The closest ones would arrive first and the furthest ones would arrive last, so I have to stage it in such a way so that’s exactly what happens.”

This time, Flight for Life, which provides emergency medical helicopter transportation, was dispatched first. This mimics the flow of real missions; the Alpine Rescue Team almost always calls Flight for Life for support right away, but they aren’t always available, and inclement weather may prevent them from launching aircraft. If availability and conditions align, the Alpine Rescue Team will then scout a good place to land the helicopter and help the other rescue agencies to the site on the ground.

An Alpine Rescue Team member works with a Flight for Life helicopter during the mock mission. Photo by Tom Rhoads

During the practice mission, Flight for Life’s first delivery to the site was Loveland Ski Patrol and their rescue dog. The fire department was paged out next and drove to the scene. Then, Clear Creek County EMS was summoned, followed by the sheriff for traffic control. The Alpine Rescue Team arrived last via Flight for Life.

Once on the scene, rescuers had to gauge whether it was safe to enter the slide path or if there was risk of another avalanche. With real calls, it’s not always known if there’s someone in the avalanche or not, so rescuers will look for clues, like ski tracks that go into the snowfield but don’t come out, to make an informed guess before embarking on a search.

When it comes to finding people trapped in an avalanche, time is of the essence. Buried victims are vulnerable to hypothermia and suffocation, often due to the buildup of carbon dioxide from their own breath.

“After that [first] half hour, your likelihood of survival goes down dramatically,” says Dawn Wilson, public information officer for the Alpine Rescue Team. “And [that’s assuming] you haven’t had a major trauma.”

If a Flight for Life helicopter is available, rescuers will scan the scene from the air, using a beacon that dangles below the aircraft to search for signals from avalanche transceivers that backcountry travelers might be wearing. Rescuers on the ground, meanwhile, may switch their avalanche beacons to “search” mode, and use the devices to pick up radio signals emitted from any beacons the victims may be wearing. The beacons can detect signals from up to 120 feet away.

When Loveland Ski Patrol is involved in searches, they bring a trained avalanche rescue dog to aid the search. These dogs sniff out human breath in the snowfield and, in previous mock missions, have found living subjects under the snow in less than 30 seconds.

The dogs will typically find buried victims faster than transceivers or the last-ditch method: probe lines, where rescuers line up and systematically poke deep into the snow with long, narrow poles to find a body. But in Stiller’s case, the ski patroller found him via transceiver before the dog did. It wasn’t until after the ski patroller had dug a hole in the snow for Stiller to breathe that the dog, who’d sniffed out the other volunteer victim, poked his nose into Stiller’s hole and offered a soothing lick to the face.

Once the victims were pulled out of the snow, the rescuers worked to stabilize them. Each victim had a tag informing the rescuers of their physical status, and the two dummies had more involved conditions, including a heart attack. This prompted those on scene to make use of a LUCAS chest compression device brought by Clear Creek County EMS.

Along with being a victim in the mock mission, Stiller served as medical proctor, watching the paramedics and other rescuers work so that he could provide insight on how they could improve during a debrief. Overall, he was impressed. “They did such a great job, there’s not much to critique,” Stiller says.

Feroldi was pleased with the practice run as well, but he’s already thinking of how he can improve next year’s mock mission. “We really learn a lot from this,” Feroldi says. “You can do all the chalkboard and talking in a room and going over videos and simulations but until you actually do it in the field…you need that adrenaline flow to get the realism of what happens.