Stevens Pass Ski Patrol, SAR teams drill to find flaws

The first helicopter dropped into the Stevens Pass Ski Resort from the west, rotors whipping through cold air. The second arrived from the east, and just when the snow settled, two more choppers descended. Ski patrollers drove up from the lodge to greet the “birds” and their occupants: volunteers and deputies with search and rescue teams from Snohomish, Chelan and King counties.

A rescue chopper at a ski resort typically indicates some sort of emergency, but on Dec. 4, the four agencies met at Stevens Pass to prepare for the next — inevitable — winter rescue.

Deputy Bill Quistorf, chief pilot at Snohomish County Search and Rescue, began planning the meet-up last March, when his crew responded to a call near Stevens Pass after a skier tumbled more than 100 yards and suffered head injuries. The rescue was a success, but he saw a lot of room for improvement for an operation with such little margin of error.

Quistorf said the only time the ski patrol has worked with Search and Rescue has been in an actual rescue, so the training day was more than an opportunity for the patrollers to “meet and greet” the SAR helicopters and crews they call on for assistance.

“It’s a huge step to just say, ‘Here’s what we’ve got, here’s what we can do,’ just so everybody knows for the time we get called on a big event,” Quistorf said.

Although winter is the slow season for search and rescue teams, cold temperatures and snow can add multiple elements to a rescue. Victims can be buried under avalanche debris, and in many rescues the difference between life and death requires the abilities and quick response of ski patrols.

During the training, ski patrollers practiced using avalanche transceivers 70 feet above the snow pack. They also used detectors that locate reflectors sewn into ski jackets and other outerwear. They also became familiar with hoisting a live person into a helicopter.

Quistorf said he hopes that the training day will become an annual event so rescue teams can continue to demonstrate their motto: “That others may live.”

Even in its last flight of the day, Snohomish County rescuers were still ironing out human error.

As the sun set over the pass, the crew was having trouble locating the buried avalanche beacons. A searcher had forgotten to turn off his cellphone, which threw off the signal sent from the ground to receivers in the helicopter.

“It was a lesson learned,” Quistorf said.

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