‘Heroes… every one of them’: How search and rescue volunteers responded to Saturday’s fatal avalanche in Routt County
Of the roughly 35 members of Routt County Search and Rescue — all volunteers — more than two-thirds responded to a fatal avalanche on Saturday, March 19, east of Steamboat Springs.
About a third of the rescue team knew Andrew Hyde, the 49-year-old Steamboat local who died when he was caught up in the slide. A second skier was injured and had to be evacuated by Classic Air Medical.
“All 25 of (the rescuers) played a role,” said Russ Sanford, Routt County Search and Rescue’s incident commander on the two-day call. “They are all heroes in my mind. Every one of them.”
The avalanche happened at about 12:20 p.m., according to a preliminary report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. When Sanford got the page shortly after, he went home so he would have the tools he needed, including a phone and computer, to manage the rescue effort.
According to the preliminary report, Hyde was found not breathing near a tree. The surviving skier started CPR, continuing unsuccessfully for about an hour.
Sanford said his first call went to emergency personnel at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center to confirm the surviving skier could stop doing CPR.
He then called that skier and tried to shift his mindset from the tragedy that just happened to how they were going to get him out of the backcountry safely.
At the same time, other volunteers were putting efforts in motion to rescue the skier.
Some team members went to Steamboat Springs Airport to be flown close to the accident site while others started to make their way there on snowmobiles from the Dry Lake Campground at Buffalo Pass.
The slide occurred on a slope above the North Fork of Fish Creek with a total descent from top to bottom of about 1,300 feet, Sanford said. Hyde and the other skier were about 350 feet down from the top of the ridge, so the first thought was to have the injured skier try to climb back up the slope, but that didn’t work.
“As the survivor worked his way up, he felt the snow move in places, and he felt it was unsafe to go up that way,” Sanford said.
Dropped off near the top of the ridge by the helicopter, Search and Rescue personnel agreed, noting that the snowpack in the area looked unstable after seeing it from the air and from the ground. So, Sanford worked to come up with another plan.
Generally after an avalanche, the slope is more stable because fractured layers often break off all the way to the bottom, but that wasn’t what happened here.
With encouragement, Sanford said, the skier was able to descend roughly 900 feet to get to Fish Creek, where a Classic Air helicopter picked him up around 4:30 p.m.
“I felt lucky to get this guy out without triggering another avalanche,” Sanford said.
Rescuers’ focus then shifted to planning how they would retrieve Hyde’s body.
With conditions too unsafe to continue working at night, rescuers returned to the Search and Rescue Barn on Yampa Street. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had reached out to offer its expertise, and planning for the next day’s recovery effort continued until at least 10 p.m.
Early on Sunday morning, March 20, Sanford met with two officials from the avalanche center, who flew with Classic Air to the area where the avalanche occurred around 9 a.m. to start studying what happened and try to find the safest path down the slope.
Not knowing if it would be safe enough, Sanford started to consider alternatives, including reaching out to a military search and rescue team, as well as Steamboat Ski Resort, about potentially using explosives to reduce avalanche danger on the slope.
Both organizations said they could help, but they encouraged Sanford to try other methods first.
Ultimately, volunteers and the avalanche experts were able to identify a safe path down to Hyde’s body, and they used a rope and pulley system to bring his body back up the mountain.
“They went down very slowly, very carefully,” Sanford said.
At about 12:20 p.m., rescuers started lifting Hyde’s body, and they got back up to the top around 3:30 p.m. before making their way out of the backcountry on snowmobiles.
Sanford said by the time everyone had gotten back to the barn Sunday, it had been about a 12-hour day.
In his roughly 25 years with Routt County Search and Rescue, Sanford said he can remember a handful of other avalanche calls, but none as complicated as this one.
At times, he was at a loss for words for describing the pride he had in the volunteers at Routt County Search and Rescue. After the two-day call, Sanford sent the team a note trying to articulate his gratitude.
“It was an absolute honor to serve as your incident commander during this mission,” Sanford wrote. “I got to work with some of the most capable, selfless people on this planet. I’m truly humbled to be in the presence of such greatness. … You are, by every definition, heroes.”
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