Sunday, January 11, 2015

Death by Degrees

Friday night I went on my first Search and Rescue mission. Three snowmobilers had become stranded, way in the backcountry north of Idaho City. One of the snowmobilers was lost and the weather was brutal.

The call out came at 7:15 p.m. We  met at the compound before at 8:00 p.m. A dozen people showed up and were assigned rides. Our gear was swiftly stashed in 902, one of two Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue vehicles. You can read more at their website here:

I had my backcountry skis, my twenty four hour pack, food and water, layers for skiing and my oversize Columbia jacket in case I had to spend the  night out. Also, I threw 6 -12 hour hand warmers and wool socks in my pack for the victim who reportedly  had nothing extra. We expected to find him hypothermic.
By 9:30 p.m. we were on location, in the nearest parking lot now serving as the Staging Grounds and our Operation Leader was gathering updates from the Sheriff.
Over the course of the night and subsequent day, SAR teams were deployed. Around 2 a.m the missing guy was located in a basic snow shelter he had built himself alongside a steep ravine, about 100 yards from his abandoned snow mobile. His legs were so cramped he could not walk. The next day he was helicoptered out of the 1,000 foot ravine.

After the three snowmobilers were debriefed it soon became evident that the crisis evolved in degrees. Only one was in shape or fully equipped for the emergency that had developed. I credit his savvy to being a soloist. He might have been fine on his own. But, he had met the other two in the parking lot and decided to accept their invitation to join them. I've learned many soloists tend to think of potential troubles and pack accordingly.

The other two, by slow degrees, mishandled the day.
One snowmobile burned oil. It ended up biting the dust because that issue was not attended to. However that individual did have matches and was able to start a fire at the top of the ridge.

The second guy ended up in the ravine, without map, low ankle socks, lost his good gloves when they fell out of his pockets. Thankfully, he had the good sense to stop and build a snow shelter when he found his legs cramping up.

My take on this whole drama is that one should always carry a survival pack, even when you only expect to be out a short time, especially when on a snowmobile. These machines became stranded 6 miles back, a long ways to walk out when darkness and disability descended.

Gear List

Matches, cotton soaked in petroleum jelly, tin foil (to provide dry base for infant fire), cigarette lighter and small hand saw for obtaining dry tinder from pine trees. Candles.

A 8 x 5 tarp for shelter. Building a snow cave takes lots of energy. Under a tarp you can light a candle and the roof will not drip on you. A small closed cell pad to rest on, to insulate yourself from the snow A knife.

Dry socks and gloves. A Hat.
Headlamp, flash light, batteries.
Snow shovel (get the kind that comes apart with a saw slipped inside the handle)
Cell phone. One guy was rescued on a previous mission because he held his cell phone up as beacon.

Water. A way to melt snow, probably in a metal cup.
Plenty of high calorie snacks. Its easy to underestimate how much food contributes to morale, immediate energy and warmth.

Maps of the area you are in. As last night's rescue played out, we learned just how inaccessible this guy was. If he had chosen to follow the ravine to safety, he would have been cell service, map or compass and we'd probably still be there, perhaps bringing out a body instead.

Sunglasses. The glare is hard on your eyes leading to further exhaustion.
Snowshoes if you can.

Of course, you could add other items as space allows. By having decent gear and wearing the correct clothing, backcountry adventure in snow is healthy.

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