Buried alive. I can scratch that off my bucket list. Not in the accidental manner of one incredibly lucky backcountry skier in Silverton in January, who, after triggering a slide, was swept off a 25-foot cliff, churned down a mountainside, and came to rest under four feet of snow on US 550. An avalanche rescue pro who serves on the board of the Silverton Avalanche School (one of the top avalanche rescue training centers in the world) happened to be driving down the highway at the exact right place at the exact right time and helped locate and excavate the skier, who walked away grateful, and unscathed.
No, I mean being intentionally buried alive as a subject posing as an avalanche victim during a training for Search & Rescue Dogs of the United States (SARDUS), an all-volunteer organization that certifies dogs and handlers who respond to backcountry emergencies throughout the state of Colorado, and around the nation. Training a dog to field with my local search team, Vail Mountain Rescue Group (VMRG), I’ve been a SARDUS member for two years. During the winter, dog training goes like this: You burrow six feet into the snowpack, hollow out a crypt for yourself, and climb inside; a helper blocks up the tunnel opening, sealing you in, then shovels a ton of snow on top of your hidey hole. Trapped beneath the snowpack you wait. And wait. It’s surprisingly tranquil. Buried six feet under, sunlight filters through the snow, and your makeshift tomb glows blue like a grotto as somewhere on the surface a handler releases a dog and gives the “Search!” command. Meanwhile in your sensory deprivation chamber, the only sound you hear is the thrum of your heart beating in your chest. Then snuffling. Followed by digging, tentative at first, then manic, until a snout pokes through the snow and a dog falls through the ceiling, a Tasmanian devil of fur licking your face and barking that, as soon as it appears, grabs its toy and launches itself to the surface with the force and the fury of a cannonball to play with its owner.
All winter long, on weeknights, we practice in snowbanks in Lionshead Village, and on weekends in the snow fields of Loveland and Vail Pass. In addition to avalanche dog training, I’ve spent a lot of time on Vail Pass, doing all of the activities featured in our Mid-winter issue’s cover story snowmobiling, skinning up Uneva Peak, snowshoeing, visiting the Shrine Mountain Inn backcountry huts. Not recreationally, but as a first responder volunteer for VMRG, searching for skiers who strayed into the unknown after leaving Chuck’s Cabin on a tour of Shrine Pass (and neglected to bring a headlamp to light their way back home), assisting inexperienced snowmobilers who get stuck or lost on rented machines, or in the case of one mission last April, break a leg after punching through a cornice atop Ptarmigan Hill. As visitation of Vail Pass has increased exponentially over the past decade, so have rescues that happen there. Investing thousands of dollars in splitboards or skis and skins and avalanche beacons and other essentials that has made our winter wilderness ever more accessible, the rescued tend to be dressed for adventure, but lack the requisite knowledge to use their gear wisely, and end up calling 911 when things don’t go as planned.
Vail Pass is a remarkable place. But unlike the controlled terrain of the resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek, it’s wild and unforgiving. If you’ve never been to Vail Pass, by all means go, but don’t go alone: hire one of the outfitters profiled in these pages who can teach you the basics of backcountry travel.
I hope to see you out there—preferably having a blast on top of the snow, and not buried beneath it.