Avalanche danger looms | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Avalanche danger looms

Susan Wood, Tribune staff writer

Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune Sierra-at-Tahoe's Dan Little and Rush 2 uncover an "avalanche" victim during a training exercise on Monday.

TWIN BRIDGES – Ski patrollers, backcountry experts and Caltrans officials were out in full force Monday because of the high avalanche danger for the region spanning Sonora to Yuba passes.

In avalanche talk, “high” ranks as the second highest of five levels the U.S. Forest Service in Truckee issues for the threat of natural and human-triggered avalanches. A bulletin was in effect over Christmas Eve and Day with the same rating.

Ratings are partly based on elevation, slope angles, snowpack, terrain and weather. As a general rule, deaths occur on slopes between 30 to 45 degrees.

A major storm in the Lake Tahoe region sent area ski patrollers out Monday to assess their grounds.

“We have only one hour,” Sierra-at-Tahoe patroller Greg Butler said during a training exercise with a golden retriever the resort has on staff as an insurance policy for guests.

Two-year-old Rush-to-the-Rescue – Rush for short – responded to trainer and handler Dan Little’s call to “find” and scrambled over the backside of the ski area summit to dig up a buried mock victim. The patrollers rotate who will be buried to help train the dogs. Beth Kirkland volunteered to go into the 3-foot hole Monday.

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The dog ran around to pick up Kirkland’s scent. Rush picked it up and raced to the rescue – uncovering the mock victim in less than a minute.

About half of all buried victims die if they are not rescued within 30 minutes.

Rush’s reward was his play toy.

“They find (the victims) so much faster than us,” Butler said.

“Good dog,” yelled the crew. The dog appears to be on the path to replacing the veteran avalanche dog that started the program. Sirius was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Highway 50 in 2002.

Most resorts prefer to use golden retrievers because they have a mild temperament and work well with people.

Ski patrol covered the slopes early that morning and performed some ski cutting to bring down the excess – triggering avalanches on the slopes with their two planks

Sierra patrollers closed the backcountry gate Monday that they had just opened the day before.

Their job is critical and technical because they’re tracking weather trends, wind currents and snowfall – trying to beat the avalanche odds, according to Kirkwood Mountain Resort patroller Todd Rudhall. Better equipment has brought more exposure to skiing the backcountry – making patrollers’ jobs more challenging.

Over the steep slopes of the Alpine County resort, more than 20 patrollers study between 18 and 20 routes in the wee hours of the morning.

Patrollers were out setting explosive charges to bring the excess snow down. Caltrans blasts east of Echo Summit when more than a foot collects.

“There is no particular area we look at,” Rudhall said Monday. “When it snows and blows, we always assume an avalanche hazard. We try to minimize that and we constantly monitor it throughout the day on a day like this.”

The concern with the latest in the mounting snowpack is the instability created by a variety of layers, along with the sheer amount.

For conditions such as this, an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe are the necessities for backcountry travelers. They are warned to refrain from traveling alone and limit their terrain to sheltered areas.

There are two types of slides – loose snow and slab avalanches. The latter being the most dangerous. Loose snow slides begin from a single point and expand as they descend.

Avalanches strike all over the world, including the Lake Tahoe Basin, with a handful of deaths being linked to them over the last five years.

To enhance snow safety, backcountry expert Dave Beck will teach a one-day class at the Lake Tahoe Community College Jan. 10.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at swood@tahoedailytribune.com