Mountain Rescue: Hunting season ramps up, a busy time for search and rescue
September 8, 2017
Big game hunting season started last month with archery season. Muzzleloaders get their chance starting Sept. 9 and rifle season starts in October.
Between now and Thanksgiving, hundreds of thousands of hunters will head for the Colorado backcountry to stalk elk, deer, moose and other big game species.
Hunting season is a busy time for mountain rescue volunteers. With all those hunters in the woods the chance of wilderness search and rescue situations is naturally higher. Only hikers outnumber hunters as the subjects of search and rescue incidents in Colorado.
Grand County Search and Rescue had our first 2017 hunter incident last weekend. An archery hunter broke his ankle at 11,800 feet near Mt. Nystrom in the Vasquez Peak Wilderness. The closest road was Jones Pass, in Clear Creek County. Fortunately, Flight for Life was able to extricate him, averting a difficult overnight ground operation.
There are all sorts of ways hunters can get in trouble; broken bones, twisted knees, lacerations, hypothermia. Hunters have the same baseline risks as anyone in the backcountry, maybe more when you consider firearms, knives and arrows. In 2015, an archery hunter accidently impaled himself in his thigh with a hunting arrow. Besides the serious medical issue, he required a litter evacuation on a steep slope with down trees, at night, in the rain.
Illness can also become a problem. Hunters may not be physically prepared for the rigors of hunting camp, we have had several hunters die of heart attacks. Two years ago a Minnesota hunter was found 200 yards from camp after a four-day search in Routt County. He had died of acute mountain sickness, also known as altitude sickness.
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Hunters sometimes get lost. Rescuing a subject from a known location is exponentially easier then rescuing a subject who's lost or unable to communicate. Adding the search element increases the complexity of the operation and almost always compounds the survival problems for the subject. Many of our most intensive searches are for hunters. Several years ago, in Corral Creek, we had a hunter who got caught out after dark. He made a number of bad moves including heading towards "headlights" that were really the rising moon and traveling randomly during the day. He started a fire each night, then put it out before moving his position. He was found after five days over in Wheatley Creek by a Blackhawk helicopter. When I interviewed him he proudly showed me the tiny Cracker Jack toy compass he was using.
Hunters as a group are usually pretty well prepared for a simple day hike in the forest. It's when something doesn't go as planned that they often need search and rescue. A simple Injury, accident or illness in the backcountry can turn into an emergency. Since hunters are most often solo in the woods, being self-sufficient is critical.
As with any backcountry traveler, we recommend carrying basic survival gear which includes proper clothing. Wool or synthetic clothing maintains its insulating properties when wet, while cotton draws heat from your body and takes a long time to dry. The ability to make a fire or shelter, to navigate with a map, compass or GPS and illuminate the forest at night will increase survivability. Hunters who become lost don't die from thirst or starvation. They die from exposure.
According to case studies of lost hunters, only 40 percent are adequately equipped for their emergency situation. Besides injuries, accidents and illness, weather and darkness play a large role. With 18 percent of lost hunters, weather played a major factor. Darkness was a contributor in 33 percent of lost hunter cases.
Some other interesting facts from lost hunter case studies:
Hunters often take shortcuts that result in getting lost.
Many hunters will go to great lengths to walk out on their own unassisted due to ego and other factors.
While pursuing game, hunters often end up in difficult or unfamiliar terrain without regard for exhaustion or navigation.
They typically under prepare for extremely foul weather.
Hunters tend to over extend themselves into darkness and push beyond their physical abilities.
Hunter safety classes cover survival skills, but without some practice, preparation and experience that classroom lesson doesn't translate very well when the sun goes down and the mercury drops. As long as 60 percent of hunters don't have the right gear for spending the night out in bad weather or other unplanned emergencies, odds are hunting season will continue to be busy for GCSAR volunteers.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 37 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.