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Local Canine Team Aids in Recovery of Avalanches’ Victims

Sue Purvis and dog, Tasha, have busy week

Reprinted from the Crested Butte News, March 14th, 2003

by Pete Sharp

Local resident Sue Purvis, with her search dog Tasha, responded to the scenes of two avalanches this past week and successfully carried out the grim task of locating one victim in each of the slides. Neither victim was wearing an avalanche beacon, thus making the search excruciatingly slow and frustrating for human search teams. The local canine team’s presence at the scene of the avalanches, one at Ptarmigan Lakes west of Buena Vista on March 9 and another near Hancock Pass near St. Elmo on March 5, brought closure for the family and friends of the victims.

The team of Tasha and Purvis is the only certified team in Gunnison County. Purvis is not paid for her work. The same day Purvis conducted a lecture about avalanche dogs with the Western State College Mountain Rescue Team, she and 7-year old Tasha were called into a real-world situation by the Chaffee County Sheriff.

According to reports, four friends from Colorado Springs were out for a day of snowmobiling. The four were travelling without beacons and, noting the high avalanche danger, decided not to "high point" or ride over cornices. Jeff Rusk, a 33-year old father and husband, was the last in the line to cross a 35-degree slope during the early afternoon. As the avalanche fractured 1,000 feet above the foursome, Rusk tried to ride his snow machine out of the slide path, but was unsuccessful as the slide bore down on him. The slide started at 12,760 feet and descended 1,100 vertical feet for approximately one-half mile.

The other three men in the group tried in vain to find Rusk with one probe pole and their feet. By late afternoon, 30 rescuers from Chaffee County-area search teams were on the scene with probe poles, again to no avail. After several hours of searching the large avalanche zone, the decision was made to call in search dogs the next morning. Purvis, along with her husband–and search team support person–Dave Rowe and Tasha, met at the St. Elmo trailhead for the 30-minute ride to the avalanche zone. On the way, Purvis says she had time to think about the mission ahead.

"I hoped that because of our dedication and commitment to Tasha's avalanche dog training we would be able to bring a quick resolution for the friends and families of the victim," says Purvis adding, "during the 8 mile snowmobile ride I had a lot to think about. Was the terrain safe to cross? Did I have all my gear and the dog’s gear? How big is a big slide? Will our dogs be working for 8 hours? Will my dog be able to perform? Where do we start? I knew all these answers, but as dog handlers we are always second guessing ourselves."

Fortunately, says Purvis, another canine search team was at the scene–Patti Burnett and dog Sandy from Copper Mountain–making for a solid team effort. After searching for approximately 30 minutes in the expansive slide zone, both dogs began concentrating their olfactory efforts in a group of pine trees, with each dog going in opposite directions to split the effort. Within one minute, according to Purvis, Tasha began "double pawing" at the base of an eight-inch tree and quickly found Rusk under eight inches of snow. After digging him out, it was apparent that he had died of trauma from hitting a tree while being swept down the slope.

Then, on the morning of Sunday, March 9, while documenting the events of March 5 and 6, Purvis was called to the Ptarmigan Lakes slide for another body recovery. In this slide, 42-year-old Manitou Springs resident Wayne Wilkinson was out for a day with his wife on separate snow machines. At approximately 10 a.m., according to Purvis, Wilkinson navigated his snowmobile from a safe knoll out into an open bowl, almost instantly triggering the slide. The fracture line, 10-feet-deep from the snow surface to the ground below, propagated several hundred feet wide, then releasing a slide that ran for 800 feet ending in a debris field 20 feet deep. According to Purvis, slabs of snow and ice were "the size of vans" making a search of the zone difficult.

Still, after searching for approximately one hour, Tasha, working independently, began double pawing and a subsequent probe search by Rowe confirmed Wilkinson’s location six feet under the snow’s surface. Again, Purvis cites the efficiency with which avalanche dogs work.

"It’s the beauty of using dogs," says Purvis adding, "it is difficult not to feel conflicted about my role as a search dog team. It is gratifying to have a successful ‘find’ that I know is directly related to the years of hard work and training that Tasha and I have done. Unfortunately, our success is so often a tragedy for someone’s family."

According to Scott Toepfer, a weather forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the avalanche danger rating on both days was considerable with areas of high danger. He says while snowmobilers are the fastest growing group of people getting caught in avalanches currently, he is unsure why that is the case, other than the weight of the snow machines themselves. Information about avalanche conditions is available on the CAIC Website www.geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche and locally at cbavalanchecenter.org. He says that while the avalanche information is available to everyone, snowmobiles pose a greater danger than skiers on any given slope. Of the Ptarmigan Lakes slide, Toepfer commented, "It may not have slid if one person was on the snow, but with the added weight of a snow machine it is harder to avoid getting caught."

He adds that with the availability of the Website and avalanche information hotline numbers–349-4022 locally–he and other staff members feel that they do about everything possible to provide crucial information with which to make educated decisions about traveling in the backcountry. "We sometimes get frustrated," says Toepfer. "We provide all the information but we still know accidents are going to happen."

Colorado leads the nation in avalanche-related deaths with 105 since the 1985/1986 season followed by Alaska with 74.


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