Private rescue service has blunt message for skiers in hopes of saving lives

Heavy snow sits in the Cascades (KOMO Photo)

SEATTLE - The avalanche danger was listed as moderate for most of the Cascade Mountains on Wednesday evening, but the forecast calls for more mountain snow as we head into the weekend.

A coordinator for a private search and rescue service posted a blunt message to social media urging skiers and snowboarders to stay in bounds.

"I lay it out there. I don’t sugarcoat everything," said Harry Oakes, K9 Search and Rescue Coordinator for International K9 Search and Rescue Services based out of Longview.

Extreme avalanche conditions in Bear Valley, California, recently prompted Oakes to turn down a family that requested his services to look for a missing person, he said.

Oakes wrote in his Facebook post, "Don’t get upset with me because I refuse to respond with our avalanche dogs to try to find your loved ones remains.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. I’m 61 years old and intend to make it to 62,” Oakes also wrote in the post.

"They had 6 feet of fresh snow, which is prime avalanche conditions," Oakes told KOMO News. "And we’re not gonna risk our dogs for what we believe is a deceased person."

International K9 Search and Rescue Services is often called in by ski resorts and families after an active search by a sheriff's office is done, Oakes said.

With more than 40 years of experience, Oakes told KOMO News he's seen his share of bodies on recovery missions around the world.

"You sit there and put yourself in their shoes and understand that this could happen to you. And that’s what makes us cautious when we’re out in the back country," Oakes said. "People don’t use common sense. And if they did, I’d be out of business instantly. If people wore life vests, we wouldn’t have drownings. People skied in bounds, the call ratio would go down by 99%."

Oakes hopes the bluntness of his message will help save lives.

"My warning to everybody is stay in bounds. Don’t go out of bounds. That way you have active ski patrollers and avalanche teams or avalanche dogs ready to respond immediately. Because if you go out of bounds and you get buried, you only have a couple minutes to survive. Unless you’re lucky and have an air pocket. And by the time anybody gets notified and gets out there, it’s gonna be pretty much too late for anybody to save you," Oakes said.

And even with the arrival of Spring, experts say avalanche hazards remain.

The Northwest Avalanche Center says if you plan to go into the back country, you should get proper training, make sure you have the proper safety gear, and check the avalanche forecast every day.

"The most important message is to be vigilant and keep doing what you’ve been doing during the winter," said Scott Schell, Executive Director of the Northwest Avalanche Center. "Just because the sun’s come out and it doesn’t feel like winter anymore, it’s no excuse to not be checking the avalanche forecast that’s being produced."

The Northwest Avalanche Center offers avalanche awareness courses. They’re winding down for the season, but a handful of them are left, Schell said. The Center just added one more basic course for snowmobilers on March 31.

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