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Avalanche search teams seldom find people alive, causing emotional 'stress injury' to rescuers over time

Posted at 8:11 AM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 10:11:04-04

The memory of a rescue mission a decade ago still haunts Charles Pitman. Recalling the image of a father and uncle praying on a mountainside for a boy of 10 or 11 while rescuers performed CPR on him, Pitman paused to gather himself, tears in his eyes.

It was one of Pitman’s first missions with the Summit County Rescue Group. A family had been snowmobiling on Vail Pass, only a mile or two from where Pitman stood as he described that tragic day. The boy had accidentally run the snowmobile he was driving into a tree. In a blinding snowstorm at 11,500 feet, nurses who happened on the scene while skiing performed CPR, but it soon became clear there was no point in continuing.

“You can see, it’s been years, probably ten, twelve years ago,” Pitman said. “That’s how hard it was. I’ve dealt with a lot of fatalities. That sort of comes with the nature of what we do. But I think the fact that it was a child is what really, really hit hard.”

Witnessing the aftermath of trauma, death and the grief experienced by next of kin is something search-and-rescue teams have to deal with, whether the cause is accidents, avalanche fatalities or missing hikers in the summer. Pitman spoke after members of Colorado’s search and rescue community conducted a media event and training scenario Thursday on Vail Pass to demonstrate how they respond when victims get caught in avalanches.

Mountain search-and-rescue teams, which are made up of volunteers, conduct similar training operations regularly. Dale Atkins, a rescue team member since 1974 who also spent 19 years as a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said most train in the field at least two weekend days a month, along with two or three mid-week classroom sessions.

Read the rest of this story on The Denver Post's website here.