PETER VANDERGRIFT Livingston Enterprise COOKE CITY, Mont. (AP)
Avalanche! For Cooke City emergency personnel, it's a word heard all too often coming over their radios, said Jan Gaertner of Cooke City Emergency Medical Services and Search and Rescue. "Your heart just sinks," Gaertner said recently. "It could be a friend." Cooke City, with a yearround population of 90 to 100 residents, is located at least in winter at the end of the road, 109 miles southeast of Livingston. Yellowstone National Park keeps the road open from the north entrance near Gardiner to the northeast entrance in the winter. Colter Pass is closed a few miles east of Cooke City, with the closest major hospital located at Cody, Wyo. This makes Cooke City one of the most isolated towns in the nation and a mecca for snowmobi l ing, said Gaertner. Gaertner, fellow Cooke City EMS and Search and Rescue member Kay Whittle and U.S. Forest Service Backcountry Ranger Drew Morrill estimated that on any given winter day, the town sees 100 visitors, mostly snowmobilers. On a busy weekend, the town swells to 500 visitors. Since the winter of 2005- 2006, Cooke City has had 18 human-triggered avalanches resulting in three fatalities, said Ron Johnson of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. "And that's only the ones we know about," Johnson said, adding the actual number of human-triggered avalanches could be much higher. On a recent Friday, Gaertner, Whittle and Morrill described a classic example of a Cooke City-area avalanche incident. Usually, it is up to people in the victim's party to dig him or her out of the cold grip of an avalanche, because it can take time for people in town to find out about it and send help, Morrill said. "It is only 20 minutes until a buried rider is dead," said Whittle. Cooke City Search and Rescue will immediately send out what is called a "Hasty Team" a small, fast-moving group on snowmobiles. Often, Morrill and his fellow Forest Service patrolman Nick Levy will be out patrolling the boundary of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness when a call comes. "Many times, we will be the first (emergency personnel) on the scene," Morrill said. The first order of business is to make sure survivors are out of the way of other possible slides. Whittle is a member of the Hasty Team and is also an EMS responder, so she can give medical treatment. A second group of search and rescue members will follow on snowmobiles, pulling sleds full of gear. Cooke City Search and Rescue is part of Park County Search and Rescue run by the sheriff's office, but because it is more than 50 miles from the closest town, they have learned not to wait for help, Gaertner said. Of the 20 Cooke City Search and Rescue members, eight are certified EMS responders. Last year, Cooke City EMS won the "Non-Transport Award" from the Montana Emergency Medical Service Association. The award was presented to Cooke City for being an outstanding group of responders who provide immediate professional treatment to patients before the arrival of an ambulance or helicopter, Gaertner said. On most winter days, it would be impossible to land a helicopter at the site of an avalanche, Morrill said. If a victim is badly hurt, they must be strapped to a sled and driven to either Cooke City for a Yellowstone Park ambulance, or across the 12-mile stretch of closed road on Colter Pass to the Pilot Creek parking area to meet a Cody ambulance. When a snowmobiler was high-marking steep terrain on Scotch Bonnet Mountain near Lulu Pass on Jan. 18, he triggered an avalanche that swept him off his sled. The victim was not buried but was badly injured when Morrill and Levy arrived. Whittle and Gaertner were also part of the effort giving medical treatment and transporting the injured man to Pilot Creek to a waiting ambulance. On Jan. 25, Jay O'Neill, of the Park County Sheriff's Office and Search and Rescue, fellow Search and Rescue personnel as well as Morrill and Levy visited the debris field from the Jan. 18 avalanche and practiced finding a buried beacon. Standing at the edge of the rubble, Morrill pointed to a line of small pine trees with most of their needles missing and explained those are called "flag trees," marking where snow from previous avalanches has swept over the trees. It's a good indicator of where not to be when avalanche danger is high, Morrill said. An easy-to-ride groomed trail ends about where the latest slide occurred, making the area easy to access. "I can think of four times in the past six years I've been right here and seen guys standing over their dead buddy," Morrill said O'Neill is the county jailer and an avid snowmobiler who volunteers for Park County Search and Rescue. He has spent many snowy weekends riding the steep terrain near Cooke City. He is also adamant about wearing an avalanche beacon and knowing how to use it. Avalanche transceivers transmit analog or digital signals which can be picked up by another transceiver with the f l ip of a swi tch, O'Nei l l explained. When looking for a person covered by snow, rescuers make sure all other transceivers are switched from their transmit mode so that only the buried beacon can be received, he said. During the drill, a transceiver was hidden in the snow. O'Neill and fellow jailer Adam Neiminen then searched for it. O'Neill swept his handheld device, about the size of a Walkman, back and forth looking for a signal. "I can tell it is in that direction," he said, and dropped his hat at his feet to mark where he first found the signal. As they closed in on the signal, Neiminen readied a collapsible 8-foot pole called a probe. "It's right here," O'Neill said, placing the transceiver on the snow and giving Neiminen room to probe. Neiminen pushed the probe down into the deep snow a few times until he hit something. When he does, he leaves the probe where it is. In an actual rescue, it would show diggers how deep the victim is buried so they can be cautious to not inflict injury. O'Neill said he never rides with people who don't wear a transceiver and will practice this drill many times throughout the season for good reason: He has triggered three avalanches himself, and his brother has been buried twice, once almost fatally. "Your only as strong as your weakest link," O'Neill said.