Mountain Rescue: ‘Tis the Season
It was about 4pm when the page went out on what turned out to be the coldest night of the year. A ‘kite skier’ had hit a tree and broken his leg, well into the backcountry. We snowmobiled in as far as we could and then started snowshoeing up the mountain. We knew it was bitter cold, but I did not know just how cold until the mission was completed and driving home at 7:30 a.m. I noticed my car thermometer read minus 37 F.
We all had beacons, shovels and probes, and whenever we had to cross an avalanche prone area, we crossed one at a time. We had team members start fires and fire up their Jetboils at regular intervals along the route, to warm us on the hike out. The subject was successfully evacuated and fully recovered.
I think of that mission this time of year as I convert my rescue pack from Fall to Winter.
Whether you are a snowmobiler, snowshoer, or skier a trip into the backcountry in winter carries a much higher hypothermia risk than summer as well as avalanche danger, which was discussed in detail in our Nov. 11 article. If you think only backcountry skiers face avalanche danger, I can tell you that our mission statistics say otherwise. In addition to avalanches, all winter backcountry travellers should by aware of and plan for the following risks: Hypothermia.
The coldest nights usually follow clear, sunny days. Don’t let daytime temperature and weather fool you. The activity most likely to leave you stranded overnight is not skiing or snowshoeing, but snowmobiling. The speed and range of modern sleds means if you do get stuck or have a mechanical breakdown, you are likely to be too far from the trailhead to hike out, particularly given the lower number of daylight hours.
All backcountry travellers need to be prepared for a night out. In addition to the other Ten Essentials take particular care to have a good fire starter and stormproof matches. Clear the snow and build your fire on a base of rocks, otherwise the hot coals will melt the frozen ground, extinguishing the coals and making it difficult to maintain a fire. Dead branches on trees tend to be dry and make good kindling. Think about purchasing a Jetboil ($80) or similar compact stove. A cup of hot tea or instant hot cider will do wonders both physically and emotionally if you are stranded. Carry food containing at least 2,000 calories per person. If you cannot call 911, try texting, which does not require as strong a signal and uses less battery power.
Most years, GCSAR’s busiest week is between Christmas and New Year’s. Multiple missions in one day are not unusual. This is the time of year when distant relatives or tourists visit and try a backcountry sport for the first time. A typical mission during this period is a snowmobile crash where the driver has little or no prior experience. If you take friends or relatives out for the first time, remember that a speed that is within your capabilities may be well beyond those of your companions. The tendency we see is for the follower is to try to keep up with the leader, so you need to tailor the ride to the least experienced in the group. Likewise, that snowshoe route that you consider easy may not be easy for someone that has just arrived in the valley from sea level and is not acclimatized or is dehydrated.
One trick that I find works well is have that visitor from sea level spend the first night in Denver rather than ascend directly into the high country.
With the holidays approaching, let’s agree that those of us that live here will look after our visitors and make this a joyous holiday season for all.
Chris Laursen is a member of Grand County Search & Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for over six years. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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