‘Heroes…every one of them’: How search and rescue volunteers responded to Saturday’s deadly avalanche

Members of Routt County Search and Rescue set up a rope system to recover the body of a skier who died in an avalanche in the Fish Creek drainage area Saturday, March 19, 2022.
Routt County Search and Rescue/Courtesy Photo

Of the roughly 35 members of Routt County Search and Rescue — all volunteers — more than two-thirds responded to a deadly avalanche Saturday, March 19, east of Steamboat Springs.

About a third of the rescue team knew Andrew Hyde, the 49-year-old Steamboat who died when he was caught in the slide. A second skier was injured and had to be evacuated by Classic Air Medical.

“All 25 (rescuers) played a role,” Russ Sanford, Routt County Search and Rescue Incident Commander, said on the two-day call. “They are all heroes in my mind. Each of them.”

The avalanche happened around 12:20 p.m., according to a preliminary report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. When Sanford received the page soon after, he returned home so he had the tools he needed, including a phone and a computer, to manage the rescue effort.

The avalanche did not descend to the bottom of the slope, which meant that much of the snowpack was still very unstable, which complicated the rescue effort.
Russ Sanford/Courtesy

According to the preliminary report, Hyde was found not breathing near a tree. The surviving skier started CPR, 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 change his mindset from the tragedy that had just happened to how they were going to get him out of the backcountry safely.

At the same time, other volunteers were busy helping the skier.

Some team members traveled to Steamboat Springs Airport to fly near the crash site while others began snowmobiling there from Dry Lake Campground in Buffalo Pass. .

The slide occurred on a slope above the North Fork of Fish Creek with a total top-to-bottom descent of about 1,300 feet, Sanford said. Hyde and the other skier were about 350 feet from the top of the ridge, so the first thought was to have the injured skier try to get back up the hill, but that didn’t work.

“As the survivor progressed he felt the snow moving in places and he felt it was unsafe to go up that way,” Sanford said.

The red square marks the location of an avalanche near the North Fork of the Fish Creek drainage area on Saturday, March 19.
Colorado Avalanche Information Center/Courtesy.

Dropped near the top of the ridge by the helicopter, search and rescue personnel agreed, noting that the snowpack in the area appeared unstable after seeing it from the air and from the ground. So Sanford worked to come up with another plan.

Usually after an avalanche the slope is more stable as the fractured layers often break off all the way to the bottom, but that’s not what happened here.

With encouragement, Sanford said, the skier was able to descend about 900 feet 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 setting off another avalanche,” Sanford said.

Two members of Routt County Search and Rescue are working to recover the body of a skier killed in an avalanche on Saturday, March 19. About 25 of the 35-member volunteer groups participated in the two-day effort.
Russ Sanford/Courtesy

The rescuers’ attention then shifted to planning how they would recover Hyde’s body.

With conditions too dangerous 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 avalanche center officials, who flew Classic Air to the area where the avalanche occurred around 9 a.m. to begin investigating what happened. and try to find the safest way down the slope.

Unsure if it would be safe enough, Sanford began considering alternatives, including contacting a military search and rescue team, as well as the Steamboat Ski Resort, about the potential use of explosives to reduce the avalanche danger on the slope.

Both organizations said they could help, but encouraged Sanford to try other methods first.

In the end, volunteers and avalanche experts were able to identify a safe path to Hyde’s body, and they used a rope and pulley system to bring his body back up the mountain.

“They came down very slowly, very carefully,” Sanford said.

Around 12:20 p.m., rescuers began lifting Hyde’s body, and they ascended to the summit around 3:30 p.m. before leaving the backcountry on a snowmobile.

Sanford said by the time everyone returned to the barn on Sunday, the day had lasted about 12 hours.

In his nearly 25 years with the Routt County Search and Rescue Service, Sanford said he remembered a handful of other avalanche calls, but none as complicated as this one.

Sometimes he was at a loss for words to describe the pride he had in Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers. After the two-day call, Sanford sent the team a note trying to express his gratitude.

“It was an absolute honor to serve as your Incident Commander during this mission,” Sanford wrote. “I have been able to work with some of the most capable and selfless people on this planet. I am truly honored to be in the presence of such greatness. … You are, by all definitions, heroes.

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