New high-tech tool aids searchers after avalanches

SNOHOMISH — Two new high-tech tools have been introduced in Snohomish County to help find people buried in an avalanche.

Now rescuers can scour avalanche debris fields from SnoHawk 10, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office search-and-rescue helicopter. The new devices tap radio transmitters to quickly locate people buried by snow, officials said.

Then rescuers can be lowered to the ground from the chopper to dig people out — to safety, they hope.

“The response time is going to dramatically increase,” said Oyvind Henningsen, a volunteer with Everett Mountain Rescue. He’s also an expert in avalanche rescue.

Time matters when people are buried, he said. After 15 minutes, the chances for survival drop, although there are many stories of people being pulled out alive several hours after an avalanche.

Although no one died here this season, many lives have been lost to avalanches in Snohomish County in previous years.

Stevens Pass was the site of the worst avalanche disaster in American history when nearly 100 people were killed near Wellington in 1910.

Conditions this week increased the avalanche risk. Rapidly changing temperatures followed by fresh snow destabilized the snowpack.

The new technology will dramatically change the way people are found after an avalanche, said sheriff’s deputy Bill Quistorf, the helicopter’s chief pilot.

It used to be the only way to find people who were buried was either to use avalanche probes — long poles driven into the snow by trained rescuers — or dogs whose sensitive sniffers could locate buried people. Rescue crews had to hike long distances to reach the avalanche site, often putting themselves at risk.

Then avalanche beacons were introduced a few years ago. The devices, worn around the neck by skiers, hikers and climbers, emit radio signals. If one person is buried, others in their group can flip a switch and home in on the signal to find their buried friend.

The latest technology now allows searchers to find people from a fast-moving chopper.

A cylindrical antenna dangling about 10 feet below the helicopter can pick up an avalanche beacon’s signal, quickly pinpoint a missing person and allow rescue crews to swoop in.

Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue donated about $4,000 for the equipment and training, Quistorf said.

Another new piece of technology that’s being used is a reflective chip that’s sewn into outdoor clothing. The company that manufacturers the chip, Recco, gives away homing devices to rescue groups, Henningsen said.

Nearly 600 of the Recco devices are being used around the world. Like the antenna, radio signals help rescuers zero in on the buried person.

The technology helped crews find the body of a man who was buried in the snow on Mount Baker earlier this year, Henningsen said.

“This is not a replacement for avalanche knowledge or good judgement,” he said.

The best way to avoid an avalanche is to be prepared and check forecasts before setting out into the backcountry, he said.

Still, whenever someone is buried, teams will rush to pull them out with hopes that they’ll get there in time to save a life.

“You don’t give up,” Henningsen said. “You want to give them that chance.”

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437,

Before you go

Preparation and knowledge are the best ways to avoid avalanche risks, experts said. Always check conditions and weather forecasts before exploring the backcountry.

For the latest avalanche forecasts, check the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s at

During an avalanche, floods or other outdoor emergencies, Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue teams are called to help people in trouble.

The all-volunteer teams rely on donations to help them operate.

To make a donation or to learn how to join search and rescue, go to

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