You’re not quite sure where you got turned around, but if you just keep going, you’ll probably figure it out, right? Maybe if you follow this stream downhill… didn’t Bear Grylls say something about water leading to civilization?
The shadows start to grow around you and the trees that seemed so welcoming now hold hidden menace… Night is falling and you’re getting nervous. You’re starting to realize how unprepared you are: no headlamp to illuminate the growing dark, no jacket to hold off the chill. The cold is starting to bite at your shorts clad legs. You can see some lights in the distance; maybe if you just keep going it’ll work out alright…
It’s always there; the temptation to just keep going. It’s a natural tendency, to want to rely on yourself, to avoid the embarrassment of “getting lost”, but there’s a dark side to this self reliance. There comes a time to acknowledge that you are indeed lost, and to sacrifice your ego, call for help (if possible), stop moving and find a safe place to hunker down.
Here are some tips to help you stay safe and be found as quickly as possible.
Let em’ know before you go. Let someone reliable know where you are going and when to expect you back. It’s common sense, but too few people actually do it. We can’t send out a rescue team unless we know approximately when and where you disappeared.
Keep your lines of communication open. Bring your cell phone and conserve your battery until you need it by turning it off or using airplane mode. A sketchy cell connection may someday be enough to save your life. If you have a GPS enabled phone, the Sheriff may be able to get a ping on your rough location for the rescue team. This is useful to us only if you stay put!
Find a safe spot out of shelter of the wind and elements to spend the night. Getting cold? You can jog around your improvised campsite, do push-ups, exercise…. But above all, stay put!
Don’t be lured in by the lights. Our local Southern California mountian ranges are often surrounded by a network of roads and cities. The lights twinkling in the distance can seem so tantalizingly near, so achievable. But what you can’t see at night are the dangers that lie ahead of you in the dark, the rough terrain and impassable cliffs that are concealed under the cover of night. Many a lost hiker has been lured in by the siren song of the city lights, only to be trapped in the dangerous jungle of steep ravines with no safe route back up or down.
Stay put! You are far more likely to fall and injure yourself while moving in the dark or in unfamiliar territory. Moving will probably only make a bad situation worse. If you could depend on your sense of direction you wouldn’t be lost in the first place. Moving wears you out and wastes your resources.
DON’T lead us on a wild goose chase! (Did I mention you should stay put?) Moving puts not only you at risk, but also the rescue personnel that are trying to find you. If you’ve managed to put a call through about your location or believe that you have been reported missing from a specific trailhead or area it’s particularly important that you don’t go wandering off in another direction and widen the search area.
Be prepared to patiently wait. It can take a while for emergency services to activate the search team. We are all volunteers with our own jobs and lives. We must stop whatever we are doing, or climb out of our beds, gather our gear and drive to the trailhead. Also remember, the people looking for you won’t be moving as fast as you; we are carrying heavy packs with extra supplies (for you!) and must often stop to call out and check out side canyons and gullies for your tracks before moving on.
Help us out! Can you see or hear a helicopter looking for you? It’s amazingly hard for the air crew to see people on the ground, especially if you stand still. In a recent interview with aviation one of the guys remarked; “If you stand next to a rock, you look like a rock”. If you want to be found, go to a nearby clearing, ridge line or rock outcropping and make yourself visible: wave, move around to catch their attention. (NOTE: they can’t hear you over the rotor blades, so save your voice!). Don’t expect them to immediately land and pick you up. Often they will instead call in your location for our ground crew to reach you. If you’ve been sighted don’t move- even if the helicopter flies away, stay put!
So go out, have fun, try not to get lost…. But if you do happen to get in trouble, did I mention you should stay put?
“You never believe everything you hear.” ~ Haley Hightower
It was supposed to be a simple carryout. But if there’s one thing you learn in Search and Rescue, you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.
The “heads-up” text comes in at 12:30 early Friday morning; a warning that a call-out might be on it’s way. I groan, roll back over and stuff my head under the pillow. The call-out may or may not happen, but I’ll catch as much sleep as I can in the meantime.
At 1:30 the sharp “ding” of a text announces that we do indeed have another mission.
Everyone but Craig Wills and I are off the hill tonight. With the team so short-handed, there’s no going back to sleep on this one. I roll out of bed and shuffle over to pull on my hiking pants and orange shirt. I load the 4Runner up with gear: my standard call out pack plus additional food, water, medical, warmth and overnighting gear. Even though it’s reported as a simple carryout, you never really know what’s coming when you hit the trailhead. I swing by Craig’s house for a quick pickup and we’re on the road with our traditional Rammstein blasting out the stereo.
The request is to assist Cal-Fire with a critical carryout. Intermittent cell service contact with the subject tells the highly dramatic story of a man with “two prosthetic legs, injured and covered in blood.” Cal-Fire is already on trail to his location. We are to provide backup manpower on the litter.
The flashing lights lead us directly to the fire engine at Cactus Spring trailhead. We arrive on scene, ready to spring into action. Not so fast. We’re informed that the fire crew is already on their way back out, but without the subject. They hiked in several miles with a heavy litter in their full call-out gear, but were not able to locate the subject at his self-reported location at the crossing with Horsethief Creek.
Apparently the elusive subject has moved and isn’t responding to attempted voice or cell contact. With failing headlamps and sagging energy the Cal-Fire guys are simply not set up for a major search. What was once assumed a simple assisted on-trail carryout has now become a full-blown search covering miles of wild canyons.
Oh man. I look over at Craig. This is big country out here. There’s a lot of ground for just two people to cover. I guess we’d better get to it! As Craig and I conduct a last cross-check of our gear and sort out our plan of attack, a paramedic brings the welcome news that DSSAR has been contacted to join in on the search with an additional 6 people. We decide to hold off heading into the field until we have the additional manpower.
In the meantime, the RSO deputy has established shaky cell contact with our subject once again. Parked at the Tewanet overlook, the deputy pointed his headlights out into the abyss of canyons south of the 74 and was able to roughly ballpark the subject’s location on the trail. The deputy repeats cardinal rule of Search and Rescue to the subject: “Stay put. We’re coming for you.”
The united RMRU/DSSAR Search team decides we will hike in together with CDF along the trail. Once we can see the police vehicle headlights, we should be directly in the subject’s vicinity. He’s been told to stay put, so we should be good to go. Great! Sounds simple enough.
As we head out, the final search party consists of RMRU and DSSAR joint squads joined by 2 CDF and 1 paramedic carrying around 60 lbs of gear. We take turns trundling the litter and the wheel over the dusty and rocky terrain towards the subject’s last reported location. Hiking with a litter can be strenuous, even without a subject strapped in. After several minutes on litter duty the cold night seems suddenly all too warm and we stop to strip down to our bright orange team shirts.
After a couple miles we reach the crossing with Horsethief Creek. Staring up in the moonlight we survey the challenge ahead of us. The ridge looms in front of us, a final extended vertical push of steep and rocky switchbacks up to where our subject supposedly awaits us. We stop to deliberate. Should we lug the litter up this extreme grade without confirmation of the subject’s whereabouts? He’s already moved on us once. “That could just burn us out- and if he’s not there, well…” notes Sharon from DSSAR.
We call out towards the ridgeline “1…2…3… Hello!”…and wait expectantly for an answer. None comes. Calling again produces the same result. The decision is made to leave the litter at the base of the climb until we’ve confirmed his location. He should be nearby. How far could a man with 2 prosthetic legs get in this sort of terrain?
We wind our way up the ridgeline, towards the slowly brightening horizon to the east. We call out once in a while, just in case our subject has gone to sleep or wandered off trail into a nearby ravine. Reaching the top of the climb, I look to the North. In the far in the distance the red and blue flashers of the deputy’s vehicle are visible, its headlights pointed directly towards us.
Radio contact with the deputy yields disturbing information: He recently saw the subject’s light 400 yards below our current location. Since there’s another ridgeline between us and the road, the only way the subject’s light could be seen below us is if he’s …(sigh) massively off trail! Oh dagnabit: He’s been moving again! I share a look of frustrated understanding with Craig. We both know we’re in for a much longer night.
Looking again to the North, I can understand why the subject would be tempted to make a go of it. The lights from Highway 74 are so tantalizing. They appear to be so close, almost within reach, especially when the rough terrain and impassable cliffs are concealed under the cover of night. But still- you have to marvel that a man with two prosthetic legs could make it that far off trail in this kind of rough terrain! Something just doesn’t seem quite right here.
After a brief conference, the decision is made to head back down to the crossing with Horsethief Creek. We’ll attempt to access the neighboring canyon by following the scar of the boulder-strewn creek downstream. We once again make the wise decision to leave the litter at the crossing. In brightening light of dawn, we pick our way through the rocks, debris and puddles that clutter the narrow base of the ravine.
Just over a mile in we receive encouraging radio contact: “He’s on the move! The deputy can see him!” The subject has made his way to a ravine far below the Tewanet lookout. Of course the canyon is far too steep for him to climb out of, but now we at least have a visual. The deputy establishes faint voice contact and finally gets the subject to stop moving.
A few minutes later, even better news crackles its way over the radio. A Cal-Fire Helicopter is available and will be here in a few minutes. “Alright!” The relieved team shares a quick celebration as we take a much-needed break from clambering through the ankle-twisting rocky debris. Snacks are passed round and drinks shared. As the thup-thup-thup of the helicopter approaches our mood starts to lift. Help from the air is always appreciated.
“The copter says we’re about 1500 feet from him as the crow flies, but there are some very steep drop-offs between us and him,” the Cal-Fire crewman on radio detail reports. Getting to the subject on foot would be very difficult and extricating him on foot even worse. Luckily, the weather is calm and clear and the canyon wide enough for the Cal-Fire air-crew to hoist. What a relief. We stand by as the Cal-Fire Helicopter extracts our elusive subject and returns him to trailhead parking lot.
Now all we have to worry about is ourselves. After hiking around all night carrying a full call-out pack and litter after a moving target, we’re not looking forward to the long hike out. Luckily, our generous friends at Cal Fire have a greatly appreciated solution: spend the extra time and effort to extract the search team as well! The helicopter crew drops a man in along the trail behind us to clear a landing zone. The copter extracts us in groups of three, cutting an exhausting hike of several hours down to a matter of minutes. Thank you Cal-Fire!
Back at staging area we get the scoop on our subject (who has refused medical care and already left). The man “covered in blood” with “prosthetic legs” was actually a guy with a couple of bad knees who had gotten a bit scratched up by the brush during his cross-country travels. Craig and I look at each other and can’t help but laugh. What a great punch line.
Sigh… like I said before… you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.
Fall. The days are still deceptively warm, but the night air carries a crispness that speaks of snow and ice to come. It’s the perfect season for hiking- that is if you follow a few tips that will enhance your enjoyment and safety.
A mild Autumn day hike can turn uncomfortably cold with the addition of a surprise storm. Air temperature drops about 3° to 4°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Heading for Tahquitz Peak? With around 3,300 feet in gain, the temperature may drop as much as 13 degrees from downtown Idyllwild (not accounting for wind chill.) That means a simple drizzle in downtown Idyllwild could turn to biting cold rain or even icy flurries as you climb.
How to keep safe and warm despite the changing weather?
Hiking tips: heating up the trail
Stay dry: While you’re updating your pack for the colder weather ahead, make sure to pack your rain gear and additional dry insulating baselayers to change into. Clothing wet from sweat or rain conducts heat 25 times faster than air and can lead to a surprisingly quick loss of body heat.
Switch to higher-fat snacks: Calorie-dense foods like chocolate, nuts and nut-butters, and cheese burn slowly, keeping you warmer longer. I love those serving size packets of Justin’s maple almond butter and coconut butter. You can find a variety of single serving packets at our local Harvest Market.
Bring enough water and/or a water filter: Many of the water sources in the high country have dried up and sources that were fresh flowing may have become stagnant over the summer. Staying hydrated allows your body to regulate it’s heat stores much more efficiently.
Overnight tips: Keys to staying cozy in camp
Be picky about where you pitch your tent: Your camp-site choice is critical to spending a comfortable night. Pitch your tent well above lower-lying areas like gullies, meadows, and creeks where cold, damp air settles. Nighttime temps can be as much as 25°F warmer just 250 feet above the inversion layer!
Take the chill out of the wind chill: make use of natural windbreaks by pitching your tent behind thicker stands of trees, bigger boulders, and on leeward sides of slopes.
Downsize: Bring a smaller shelter. A lower-volume tent requires less of your body heat to warm it.
Snack yourself warm: Eat a snack and brew hot drinks while you set up your camp. Snack again just before bedtime; digestion will help raise your body temp.
Fat is your friend: Add oil and spices to your fall meal plans. Coconut oil is a quick burning fat,butter is just plain delicious (and has gotten a much undeserved bad rap) and olive oil can add great flavor to any meal. Eating spices like ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon can increase blood flow to the skin and make you feel warmer.
“Before we had airplanes and astronauts, we really thought that there was an actual place beyond the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow. There was an actual place, and we could go above the clouds and find it there.” ~Barbara Walters
Dark clouds boil across the horizon. A flock of ravens coughs out the last of their calls towards the oncoming storm and flies off towards the thinning blue horizon to the east. I’m in a “scenic” pull out on the side of the road Arches National Park, UT, and things are about to get ugly.
Thunder rolls down through the canyons, lightning spikes through the heavy air. A spattering of raindrops becomes a torrent. The rain falls so hard it stings my fingers. Tourists quickly flee for the shelter of their cars. Other photographers flee en masse, shielding precious lenses against the suddenly wasted day. I almost laugh- it’s practically a scene from an “Armageddon” style movie, without the inevitable end of the world, of course.
I make a hasty retreat to my trusty 4Runner, swing open the door. Using the running board to launch myself inside, I slam the door against the pelting rain. I take off the sunglasses I still have on my head, uselessly try to wipe off the droplets with my wet shirt. The rumble of cars pulling out of the lot gradually dies down as the others filter out back towards town, towards mouth watering burgers at Milt’s and a tasty microbrew at the Moab Brewery. It’s my decision, do I turn left onto road and follow the crowd out of of park? Or turn right and drive deeper?
The rain pelts the windshield so hard and fast that all I can see of the twisted road is a vague blur as the back and forth whine of wipers strains to keep up. Its a half an hour drive until I reach the signs for Balanced Rock. The white noise of the rain on the roof soothes, bringing on a Zen-like state where time doesn’t matter.
A beam of sun announces that the deep blue of the desert sky is reclaiming some of its’ territory. The rain recedes into the distance. I roll down the window. The clean scent of wet desert earth washes up through my nostrils and breezes into my lungs. Everything feels lighter. Cleaner, better. The clouds range high above to the southeast, piled up on top of each other. The sun shines down, reflecting through the water vapor. The smooth vibrant tones of a Rainbow form behind the rock. The car door swings open with a slight creak. Canon in hand the rainbow pulls me forward. The cracked red plain feels cool under my feet.
The rocky plain warms up in the sun. Rivers of water are dying quickly to rivulets, the cracks in the rock of the desert floor drinking up their life blood. Pools of vanishing water reflect the dramatic sky. I shoot for hours, barely noticing as the occasional car makes a hum in the distance – people slowly filtering back in to explore the park.
I reach the trailhead to Delicate Arch as the sun swings low down the horizon. The sandy trail is perfect. I throw my shoes into my backpack, swing it up onto my shoulders, nestle tripod into the notch of my right shoulder. Some of the tourists have ventured back into the park and I nod my way past surprised looks as I run barefoot up the trail past them. Bare toes digging deliciously into the wet sand soil, I book it up the trail towards Delicate Arch as the sun sets behind me.
The sun beats me up the trail. At the Arch a raven struts along the smooth golden red bowl below. The gold fades to yellow, then gray. The crowd sifts away. I’m left alone with a brilliant splash of stars and the dark silhouette of the rock surrounding me. I don’t have my timer for a long exposure to capture the stars, but that doesn’t matter now. Now is not the time for photos… I lay back into the rock, rest my head against the rough stone and soak in its’ warmth. I have my headlamp, my gear and my backpack. In a few hours, I’ll head back down, check in at the friendly little Rustic Inn. But now? I’m over the Rainbow… This is as good as it gets.
If you book your regular cushy first class seat on the plane you’ll cruise above him at a cool 30,000 feet. Cruising along the Interstate you’ll blaze right on by without a moments thought. Even if you pull off the highway and do run into him, most likely you’ll look right through him – just one more hippie biker in Garberville, CA – just one more person you don’t trust enough to interact with and don’t really have time for anyway.
You’d be missing out.
Missing out on music that touches your soul. Just try it. Sit on a curb outside the 76 station. Breathe in the sensation of it. The curb is gritty under your fingers. Hear high notes swirling all around you– a man playing for the sheer joy of it. Close your eyes and take it in. The sharp smell of gasoline and grease, the slightly warm cement of the curb supporting you, feet in the gutter, your ears grasping to capture every sound. You lean into the music. No tickets, no crowds, no seats- your own private concert.
I’ve noticed that it’s so damn easy to miss out on the good things in life. So easy to opt for the comfort of anonymity, of minimizing contact and risk, the convenience of speeding through our lives to get the the parts that we think matter. I’m not saying you have to give up these conveniences, just be aware what you are doing- and that you might be missing something of value.
Next time slow down and wake up to your own life. Are you really living it or just speeding through?
I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. ~Lillian Smith
Travel is a bridge to everywhere. Not just to the spaces on the other end of the road. Not just through the woods and across the ocean. If we let it, it can be a bridge that reaches within as well as outwards into the world. If we live it, if we dare to truly experience other places, other people, other languages and cultures with an open mind we must expand our way of thinking.
As your mouth hesitantly tries out the slippery syllables of a new language, as you roll a new taste across your tongue, as your eyes drink in the world around you, you become wider, larger, simply more, than you were a moment before. The adventure is not simply “out there” but also within yourself.
Truly letting yourself experience the world around you will inevitably open you up to different ways of thinking, of questioning lifelong assumptions, of realizing that not only could you be wrong, but that you often are. Tolerance, understanding and an odd peace take root in your soul. If you’re lucky you can tap into that understanding in the future. Travel can be a bridge to everywhere… if you let it.
“Make sure to bring your rescue gear”. Lee says on the phone Friday night. I’ve called him to ask if I can borrow his ascenders for the team training tomorrow. “Really? You think I’ll need it?” Famous last words…
Saturday, 7:30 am. My wheels kick up gravel along the gritty dirt road deep in Joshua Tree’s Indian Cove campground. The sun rises behind me, painting the faces of the rock a golden red, promising a warm day ahead. Dust follows my 4Runner up the road towards our team campsites. The familiar RMRU Rescue Trucks and a scattering of orange shirts says I’ve arrived.
A few team members are already working on personal skills high up on the steep rock walls surrounding the campsites. More cars pull in. We exchange warm welcomes and start gathering our team technical rock gear for training.
Pete Carlson gives a brief training overview. “Today we’ll be working on secure anchor setting, setting up pulley systems, controlled litter raises and lowers. These skills will help you do your job and save the lives of our subjects and teammates. Stay on task, work hard with your team and enjoy yourself!”
Technical Rock Training: Anchors
We break off into groups. Donny peels off to the southwest with those who want to practice setting anchors. Pete collects the more advanced technical crew to dive immediately into setting up raises and lowers for our litter system off of a steep rock wall to the southeast.
Donny reviews the use of cams, hexes and nuts. How do you evaluate the rock for the most secure placement? He runs us through different scenarios, covering the possible pros and cons. Place the anchor in a crack that flares outwards towards the direction of pull and the piece will be at risk of walking and yanking free. A crack with parallel, or better yet, walls that come together along the direction of pull will yield a bomber hold.
We learn to check the quality of the rock, watching for potential crumbling or flaking. Rock crystals that break off or flaking sections can allow the anchor to shift and put you at serious risk of the piece failing. The strength and angle of placement are critical. Even though anchors have flexible stems, their angle to the fall line (the angle at which you are placing the most weight/force) is important. If you place the piece too far off angle the torque can cause the piece to rotate, ‘walk’, and potentially pop out of position. Just in case you were wondering, this is not good.
Donny shows us how to assess placement of multiple cams in order to maximize the strength of the system. Once again the angle is key. A wide angle running from the anchors to their point of attachment weakens the entire system. Donny explains how lengthening the runners along the fall line can create a tighter angle and also help equalize the load for a stronger system. When we are low on runners, placing the cams closer together can yield the same effect.
I listen intently. Not only our own lives, but those of my teammates and subjects will be at risk if I get this wrong later. The weight of several rescuers, their heavy team gear, full rescue backpacks, a sturdy stokes litter and a subject will all hang from our placement of these pieces.
We split up to practice, with Donny coming over to critique our anchor placements and test their strength.
Nearly a Rescue
The call comes in around 9:30 am. Team President Rob May comes over to let us know. “Collect your gear and clear out. We’ve got a rescue! Meet at the base of the tram. No other details yet”. Glenn and Gwenda head out first to see if they can get more info, while the rest of the team packs up the technical gear and sorts it into the truck.
Dang it, Lee was right! A call can come at any time. I start mentally berating myself for bringing everything but my winter gear. It may be warm down in the desert, but if this turns into a mission in the high country I very well may need the crampons and ice axe still nestled deep in my gear closet at home. Dang! One more lesson learned.
The team peels off one by one into an informal caravan heading towards Mt. San Jacinto. I fall into line behind Paul Caraher and Matt Jordan on the highway. Traffic that was tolerable this morning now seems to creep as we cruise along behind cars forming a slow moving roadblock. Midway through the drive a cell phone chain carries the news to the team- the mission base has changed to Whitewater.
Aviation to the Rescue!
Just a few minutes after we pull into base we get the news. Aviation has scooped up the “disoriented PCT hiker” from high on Fuller Ridge and is already en route to our location. Bewildered grins are passed around: 20+ rescuers and no rescue!
We hear the “thup thup” of the copter within minutes. Star 9 sets down a few hundred feet away. As Tony and Juvien from Aviation escort the subject to the waiting rescue crew, I can’t help but notice that the he doesn’t seem well prepared. He is wearing a dusty cotton Tshirt and cotton pants. His backpack is old and from a distance doesn’t appear to have a sturdy waist strap to properly distribute the load. An old Walmart style sleeping bag and mattress are rolled up together on top to form a bedroll.
I don’t get a chance to talk to the subject, but it’s pretty likely he didn’t have the necessary gear for the mountain. Mt San Jacinto is the first serious non-desert challenge along the route of the PCT. A lot of thru-hikers gravely underestimate the conditions. We’ve already had a rash of heads-ups and rescues due to ill prepared PCTers this season.
Pic- caption- personal Rock Skills- Donny Goetz and Alan Lovegreen form a 2 man anchor to belay Les Walker down a 100 ft rock face.
Back to Business
The “nearly a rescue” has eaten hours of our time. When we get back to JTree our prime location for training has been taken by eager rock climbers. After some time for lunch and personal skills Pete and Donny scout out a new location for litter raises and lowers. The rock at the new location is more complicated, but we take on the challenge and start setting up our anchors to get into litter raises and lowers.
The DG (decomposing granite) rock makes setting anchors challenging. Obvious cracks end up being too unstable to rely on. Despite the crumbling cracks we manage to securely place a selection of cams and hexes. We tie in our red and blue runners and equalize them, distributing the weight leading toward the fall line where we will tie in the litter.
I volunteer as the first Litter Attendant. With experienced guidance from the senior members I clip into the litter in the middle and guide it down the face of the rock, using the weight of my body and leg strength to guide it over the uneven rocks. The litter must be held as level as possible in order to not endanger the subject.
The Litter Attendant not only guides the litter, but must keep constant tabs on the condition of the subject. If they are in shock it’s important to keep the head tilted slightly down to increase blood flow to the brain. If we suspect a traumatic brain injury we tilt the litter slightly up to reduce swelling and hopefully buy them some more time before brain damage results from the pressure.
I call out the orders loudly, “down slow…” Holding the litter with both arms I lean back with my full weight and let the strength of my legs, the tension of the rope and the team above do most of the heavy lifting. We hit a tricky spot along the route that threatens to throw the litter off kilter. “Stop!” I look back over my shoulder, decide to head for the rocks to my left and readjust my grip. Chad relays the orders to the rope team at the top. Good communication is key. Down we go.
Guiding the litter back up is challenging and great practice for a real fife scenario. With Kelly securely strapped in I use the Prussik knots to adjust the angle of the litter and keep her level as we ascend the uneven rock faces. I reach up and pull my line to the litter, lengthening it in order to give my legs more purchase as we head back up. “Up, slow!”
At the top I unhook and climb into the recently vacated litter as Matt Jordan takes the lead as Litter Attendant. Mike George and Frank Snider follow us up, while the rest of the team take turns running the rope system and trying out some of our expensive new team gear.
Job Well Done
By the end of the day we are all hot, dusty and in need of a comfy camp chair and a cold beverage. The moon rises to the east as we eat, relax and stare into the campfire. It’s time for stories, laughter and pranks on those who go to bed early. Definitely a day well spent, despite the snag of the “nearly a rescue” incident of the morning.
Planning a roadtrip? Want to hit some wilderness areas for hiking and backpacking? As a Backcountry Skills Instructor, Search and Rescue Team Member, volunteer USFS Ranger and general Know-it-all I’ve had quite a bit of experience planning for safe trips into the wilderness. Here’s my own personal Adventurer’s list of 13 essentials for Wilderness Safety.
Common Sense. Truly essential number ONE. Having the right gear is one thing, but knowing how and when to use it is another. Most often, it’s not a person’s gear that saves their bacon. It’s experience, know-how, and good judgment.
Extra clothing. I always bring a down jacket, extra socks, rain gear and an emergency shelter. The weather can change its’ mind minute by minute. If you or your friend is injured, you may be required to stay in one place for an extended period through weather extremes. Contrary to what the media presents, rescues often take many hours to coordinate, even when you are lucky enough to have a helicopter available. Extra clothing can make the difference between a merely unpleasant night and a life threatening one.
A hiking partner. Consider hiking with a partner. Hiking alone, especially in winter, can be dangerous. A critical point to remember: a cell phone is useful, but does not replace a partner. Batteries can go out, certain areas do not receive reception, and you may drop, damage or lose your phone.
Headlamp and backup batteries. You never know how long you will have to stay out in emergency situations. Light to illuminate your surroundings and the trail home can be the difference between a safe trip home and a broken leg.
Extra water and/or filter, especially in the summer- remember you never know what’s up the drainage… dead horse water anyone? Remember that your water bladder line can freeze in the winter and leak in the summer- it’s wise to bring a back-up Nalgene. Even 2% dehydration takes your physical and metal efficiency down 20% and makes you much more vulnerable to hypothermia or heat exhaustion. Most people we rescue are dehydrated in addition to being lost or injured.
Extra Food. Getting stuck in the back country without extra food can be pretty uncomfortable. Keeping your energy up can help you stay in good health and keep you more mentally alert to make good decisions.
Gear for Seasonal conditions: Microspikes, gloves, extra dark sunglasses and snow gaiters are always in my bag in the winter. Crampons, ice axe and snowshoes are always out in my gear room to be brought on an as needed basis. Hiking partners are on speed dial. A hat with a visor, sunglasses, insect gear and repellant, sunscreen and a head/neck buff are summer standards.
Sun Protection. Dark sunglasses, hat and suncreen are more important to your safety than you know. A little sunburn may not kill you, but unprotected exposure to bright light (reflected off of snow or light graveled trails) for as little as an hour at high altitudes can (initially) painlessly burn your cornea and then lead to supremely painful snowblindess within a few hours. If you’ve experienced it full blown you will never forget it. Remember, if you are out on your own it is difficult and dangerous find your way down the trail without the use of your eyes.
First Aid Gear– Carry the basics, know what you have and make sureyou know how to use everything you carry. It won’t do you any good to carry something if you have no clue how to use it. It’s very a good idea to enroll yourself in a Wilderness First Aid course like one of those offered by Wildernessoutings.com (some of the best instructors I know).
Map & Compass: Always bring a topo map of the region. Make sure you know how to read it and use your compass to orient the map. Knowing UTM coordinates is also really useful. You never know when you may have to call out the coordinates of the nearest meadow for a helicopter landing zone for Search and Rescue.
Fire: a reliable source of fire can be critical to keeping you warm in emergency situations. Even though most Wilderness areas are fire free, there are situations where survival can trump all.
Knife/repair tools. Having a knife can help you out in a lot of critical survival situations- not necessarily so dramatic as cutting off your own arm (a la 127 Hours), but important nonetheless.
Vision aids. Have a prescription? Wear contacts? Make sure and bring both extra contacts and a set of glasses. I’ve had contacts tear, glasses break or my eyes become too irritated for contacts. On one particular high angle snow and ice rescue I was very glad I had brought an alternative. Take it from me, it’s not fun trying to make your way down the mountain while only seeing a vague blur of the trail ahead of you.
So get out there and have fun! But make sure you take the time ahead of time to prepare with the right gear, the right training, and most especially copious amounts of common sense. There are certainly other things that you can bring that will help you safely navigate the back country, but nothing trumps going into the wilderness with a good head on your shoulders!
“Great things are done when men & mountains meet.” William Blake
In between my work as a nutritionist and wilderness instructor I make time for my true love- being a member of RMRU- a highly respected Search and Rescue team that covers the rugged mountain areas of Riverside County surrounding Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California.
What follows is a write up of our latest mission. This kind of experience really helps put your everyday worries into perspective. Nothing like a confrontation with mortality to remind you of what is important in life.
Sunday April 1, 2012
5:47 pm. I had just gotten down from a 7 mile trail run when the call-out came. The text was brief: “We have a rescue. Snow and ice. Call the rescue line.” I jumped up off the couch, pressing the phone to my ear and bee-lining it towards my gear closet.
The message on the Rescue line from Gwenda says we have a 17 year old boy stuck up in the Chinquapin bowl area below Tahquitz peak. He’s uninjured, but not able to safely move from his position. He managed to get a call out to 911 despite the sketchy cell signal in that area. I get a shiver down my spine. The bowl is an extremely steep dropoff on the northeast face of the peak- this time of year it’ll be covered in a nasty sheet of ice. I state my availability after the beep: “This is Helene. I’ll be there in 30.”
I sift through my gear closet, adding items to my basic grab-n-go pack. Ice axe, cramp-ons, gaiters, heavy down jacket and my warmest sleeping bag in case we need to bivy overnight. It had been a warm day down in town- almost 60 degrees, but the sun is already setting- it’ll be a different story up in the high country. An extra jacket, 3 headlamps with extra batteries, another pair of micro-spikes, extra food and water just in case. You never know exactly what conditions you’ll be getting into, and it’s usually a safe bet that the subject won’t have been prepared for this sort of worse case scenario.
I swing on my winter pack and head out the door. Mission Base is at the Humber Park parking lot at the foot of Tahquitz Rock. Looking up far above, I can see the sheer slope that we’ll be traversing to reach the subject. This would be a lot faster and easier if we could be dropped in the high country, but the only copter currently available is CHP and they don’t fly at night. That means we’ll just have to hoof it. It’ll take us a few hours in these conditions to make it up there. Hopefully the subject doesn’t get brave in the meantime and try to move.
Lee Arnson, Les Walker and I are the first on scene. More rescuers are en route- we can always use the people. Paul Caraher is bringing the team truck up with all the gear that may be needed if this rescue escalates. We form our plan of attack. Les will stay on scene and run base until Paul gets here to take over. Lee and I will head up Devil’s Slide, while other rescuers will be shunted up the trail as needed behind us or towards the South Ridge Trail in case the subject manages to cross the ice field and head down.
Lee and I swing on the full weight of our winter packs and start up the trail. A few minutes later Will Carlson lopes up the trail behind us. After a warm welcome we’re off again at a quick clip.
The conditions don’t really get challenging until we reach the Saddle. As we come into the junction the wind kicks increasingly strong gusts our way. What has been patchy snow coverage turns into a continuous sheet of ice and hardened snow. If the subject is stuck long in this sort of wind on a fully exposed slope he runs a high risk of hypothermia. Getting him out will be difficult enough without this added complication. I glance at my thermometer- it’s already down to 18 degrees… and with the wind chill… We bear a sharp right up the PCT towards Chinquapin with a renewed fervor.
We cut cross-country across the slopes above the buried trail to save time. The snow is really just crunchy ice from continuous freeze/melt cycles. We walk on top of the sheet of ice, not sinking in at all. We’re essentially walking on a slanted skating rink, in the dark, on a windy night. I swing my ice axe off my pack and into my uphill hand where it can do some good. Our crampon spikes bite into the edge of the mountain and keep us from sliding. The slope here ranges from only 20 to 35 degrees but it’s already taking concentration to place each step correctly.
About 2 hours in we reach the first overlook into the bowl. The wind comes up howling over the lip and buffets us. We wait for our chance – when it dies down we yell out over the edge “Hello! ……Hello!” No answer. We shout again. And again. No answer. Will says: “He should have heard that if he’s there.” Lee gives me a raised eyebrow and I answer with my own worried look. “Maybe he made it out the South Ridge Side” I say with a doubtful tone.
We duck back to the other side of the ridge lip and continue our trek to the far side of the bowl. Reaching the flat area around the saddle above the bowl we stop and look for tracks. Bingo! Fresh snowshoe tracks heading off alone. “Base, Team one…” Lee gets radio confirmation from base that the subject had MSR snowshoes. We follow the tracks across an increasingly steep slope, alternately yelling the subject’s name.
After about 20 minutes Will gets voice contact and we carefully make our way towards the sound. Along the way we gather up a pair of trekking poles caught splayed out in the tips of some brush. “This must be where he slipped.”
The slope has increased to about 45 degrees, some particularly nasty sections even ranging towards 60 degrees. I take extreme care with every step, making sure to plant my axe securely before I move each foot forward. Even with the weight of the winter pack I don’t have enough mass to really bite into the ice, so I have to put extra downward punch in every step to make sure it’s secure. I’m definitely feeling my trail run earlier in the day. Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed it so hard…
Lee and Will pick their way over 100 feet downslope to the subject. He is lodged in the well of the tree that stopped his slide and saved his life. They check his status- amazingly he’s uninjured and is still awake and alert, but very cold. They outfit him with a down jacket, crampons, my extra headlamp, and one of our back-up harnesses, while I wait above securing the belay we’ve rigged. I notice that the tree I’m nestled against is encased in an inch thick sheet of ice. The thermometer reads 13 degrees, the wind chill bringing it down below 0. In a matter of minutes Lee and Will tie the subject in to the line and get him moving upslope as I take out slack.
We radio in to let base know we have the subject and that he’s in good condition. Due to the conditions the call is made to not crowd the slope with too many rescuers. We have enough people to set up and run belay and monitor the subject’s wellbeing. Pete Carlson, and Alan Lovegreen (Team two) have hiked up to the saddle behind us. Carlos Carter and Les Walker (Team Three) are approaching on South Ridge Trail. Base calls them back. Despite their cool heads and experience, on this steep windy slope more rescuers would not necessarily be better.
The wind is increasing, with sudden howling gusts interrupted by unpredictable bouts of silence making it even more difficult to keep our footing. One very strong and abrupt gust actually lifts me up and knocks me off my feet. I feel a rush of adrenaline as my training kicks in and I managed to arrest my fall before it even starts. I stare down the slope and imagine sliding uncontrollably down the several thousand feet to the bottom of the bowl.
Up and Out
The decision is made to head up towards the ridgeline instead of traversing an increasingly steep slope in dangerous wind conditions. If we can get up there it’s a straight, if rocky, shot to the Forest Service Fire Lookout Tower. The only problem will be finding a way in. This time of year the Lookout is still locked down tighter than San Quentin.
On the third try I manage to make a cell call out to my friend Lookout Coordinator Bob Romano and get the combo to the tower. He wishes us safety and luck. I tell him that we appreciate the help- getting the subject (and us) warm and out of the wind will likely be critical to keeping us all safe.
We slowly coax the subject up the incline along a series of belays. He’s understandably scared and nervous after his experience, but we can’t afford to move too slowly. In these conditions succumbing to the cold is a looming risk for the whole team if we don’t keep moving and get out of the wind soon. I’m already shivering off and on and I can see that the guys are working through the cold as well. In order to set up the belays quickly they have to take their gloves off, instantly leaching the heat from their hands and putting them at greater risk the longer we spend on the slope.
We crest the edge of the Tahquitz ridge and the wind abruptly dies. Now that I’m reasonably sure of my own safety I turn my attention to checking more thoroughly on the subject’s wellbeing. He’s still shivering, but that’s a relatively good sign. It means that although he’s cold, his body still has enough energy to try and produce much needed heat. I engage him in conversation to both encourage him and make sure he is still alert.
He relates that, expecting only a day hike, he only brought a small daypack with minimal food and water. This sets off alarm bells in my head. In extreme conditions the body needs both the calories from food and enough water to adequately maintain body temperature. If a person is low on energy and dehydrated they run a much higher risk of hypothermia. I break out my extra provisions and make sure he eats. Lee melts a Nalgene worth of snow and we watch him drink. After a few minutes he noticeably peps up.
Will has gone on ahead to explore our route along the ridgeline. He comes back with good news- only about a half an hour more to a flat section and then it’ll be the “simple” grind of making our way to the tower. The guys take over the subject and I head out to open up the tower and get it ready.
Safe and Sound
It’s about 4 in the morning when the whole group finally meets up at the tower. We give the subject the narrow bed and slide him into one of the extra sleeping bags. We all share a few snack bars and some water and settle down onto the floor for a couple hours rest. Being out of the wind and relatively warm is an amazing feeling after this long night.
After a wake-up serenade from the radio at 6am (thanks Paul!) we pack up our gear and hit the trail. The wind had blessedly died down around dawn. The South Ridge trail, with its’ southern exposure is refreshingly clear of snow and the going is easy. My legs are stiff from overuse and it takes a while to really get into a rhythm, but the siren song of scrambled eggs and bacon is calling us all and we make short work of it.
Pete Carlson and Les Walker are waiting on us at the trailhead- I can’t say I’ve ever been more happy to see them- especially since they were there to drive us out. We brought the boy back to his grateful mother up at base. Then headed out to a much deserved breakfast.
What Really Matters
Looking back over the night I remember the feeling of being in the moment; of not caring about all the worries that I often allow to consume my day. All that mattered was doing what was needed to preserve my life and that of my team. Although it can be challenging, an experience like this helps clarify a lot of things. When you strip everything away you come down to a basic appreciation of life and an understanding of what it means to truly cherish those you care for.
My RMRU team members are the best. From working with Will and Lee in the worst conditions on the mountain, to the support from the backup teams (Carlos, Alan, Les and Pete) ready to spring into action, to the guidance and information from Paul at base I wouldn’t want any other team of mountaineers, any other family, at my back.
RMRU members involved:
Lee Arnson, Will Carlson, Helene Lohr, Les Walker, Pete Carlson, Carlos Carter, Alan Lovegreen, and Paul Caraher