By David VergunFebruary 24, 2017
BLACK RAPIDS TRAINING SITE, Alaska (Army News Service) -- An avalanche had just occurred and two bodies were buried in the snow at the Northern Warfare Training Center.
It was a training exercise, but an eerily realistic one at that, according to Sgt. Jessica Bartolotta, a student at the 15-day Cold Weather Leaders Course.
The instructors simulated two bodies by filling up bags with snow. The night before the avalanche training, the instructors had actually set off a small avalanche that buried the bags. One was fitted with a rescue beacon and one was not.
"The training was so much more in-depth than I thought it would be," Bartolotta said.
Probe teams armed with rescue ropes, shovels, a rescue sled, beacons and long avalanche probes resembling fishing poles, were dispatched to find the bodies.
To reach the site of the avalanche, the students used snowshoes to descend a steep slope and then climb partly up a mountain. They arrived at the telltale swath of snow the avalanche had created with no clear idea where the bodies were buried.
Probe teams were deployed at the bottom of the slope, arm's length from each other. A probe leader issued commands to each 10-man squad.
"Probe down," was his first command. Everyone's probe was inserted into the deep snow, as the students tried to feel for the body. Nothing.
"Probe up," the leader commanded. "Face left. Probe down." Nothing.
"Probe up. Face right. Probe down."
A student said he thought he found something. He left his probe in the ground to mark the spot and a shovel team advanced and started digging. It turned out to be a tree root.
"Step forward," the leader commanded. Everyone took a step forward.
"Probe down." Nothing.
"Probe up. Face left. Probe down." Nothing.
"Oh, my buddy," cried Sgt. Eric Martin, a medic at the school who was enlisted to add realism to the simulation by playing the role of the victims' friend.
"Probe up. Face right. Probe down."
"I think I've got a hit," said a student.
A shovel team rushed to the planted probe and, after a few minutes of digging, retrieved the body.
And so it went, until they found the second body 20 minutes later using the probing method to systematically comb the most likely area of the avalanche where the bodies would be found.
Once the bodies were discovered, one of the students lay in the rescue sled to simulate a rescued person, and the rescue squad pulled the sled up steep terrain to an awaiting tracked ambulance.
Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Rodriguez, a student from Puerto Rico, said all of the training was totally new to him. After the instruction, he now "feels confident Soldiers would find me if I were buried by an avalanche."
Steven Decker, the training specialist at NWTC, said that in addition to receiving rescue and recovery training, students are taught several methods of avoiding avalanches in the first place.
The first method is known as a snow-pack analysis. This is done, he said, by digging a hole into the snow in a place that's "representative of the area of concern."
The purpose of the hole is to examine the type of snow layers. If a very soft layer of snow is topped by a hard, dense layer, the soft layer could collapse and the hard layer could slide down.
Another method that is less time-consuming, he said, involves finding an area of slope that is representative of the area of concern and then jumping on top of the slope to see if it will slide or move.
Areas of concern for an avalanche are generally on 20 to 60 degrees slopes. Most avalanches occur on 35 to 40 degree slopes, he said. To avoid an avalanche, he advised, it's wise to transit slopes that are either steeper or shallower than that range.
A person caught in an avalanche usually won't have time to get out of the way. Avalanches are much too fast, Decker said. The best approach is trying to swim to the top. Some Special Forces units carry air bags they can deploy in an avalanche that buoy them to the surface.
There are avalanches at NWTC each year, Decker said, but instructors are familiar with the locations where they tend to occur and make sure students aren't put in harm's way.
Staff Sgt. Jack Stacy, an instructor, cautioned that even the experts can become complacent, believing they'll never be the victim of an avalanche. He admitted some Soldiers he has served with have had that attitude. "That's how people die," he said.
READ THE SNOW
Hank Dube, 90, a retired Soldier who lives near the school, served as an instructor at NWTC in the 1960s. He still remembers returning from a daylong ski maneuver with two other instructors and, during the trip back, warning the others about an area he thought was likely to produce an avalanche.
He opted to traverse the area atop a wind-swept ridge above the snow, but the other instructors didn't want to make the climb. They indicated they intended to go the long way around on easy terrain, away from the path of a potential avalanche. They then went their separate ways.
"They must have wanted to get back in a hurry because they took the shortest route back, right below a large cornice," Dube said.
When they didn't arrive at the rendezvous point, Dube and some others returned and found that an avalanche had occurred. Using probes, they found the instructors -- but it was too late.
"You can die here if you don't follow instructions and know how to read snow conditions," he said.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)