No Holiday Rest for the SAR Crews

2009's Odometer Turns Over With a Flurry of Incidents
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2009's Odometer Turns Over With a Flurry of Incidents



Skiing in Bryce Canyon National Park. Image: Howephoto.us



OK campers, while you - like all my editors - may have been on vacation over the Xmas Holidays, trouble - and myself - were not. Here is a novella-length list of the more stand-out emergencies:

Scottish Avalanches Kill Three, Injure Another

Ten days of unusually of cold, dry weather in the Scottish Highlands resulted in hardpacked snow overlain by a layer of surface hoar that became buried by subsequent snowfalls, forming a weak layer for slab avalanches, with tragic results. On Wednesday, December 30th, two climbers were killed in the Coire Na Ciste area of Ben Nevis, highest point in the U.K., one was rescued from Liathach in the Torridon Range, but later died, and two more were rescued from Beinn an Dothaidh. A search was underway Wednesday night for a fourth missing climber. Surface hoar and depth hoar are rare phenomena in warm, wet maritime climates like the British Isles, and apparently climbers have been caught unawares.

Seven Die in Italian Avalanches

On sunday, December 27th, two Italian tourists went missing in Val Lasties, in the Dolomites of northern Italy. The two apparently died in an avalanche. Seven members of a rescue team who were searching for them were caught by a gigantic slide that carried them 1,300 vertical feet down-slope. Four of the rescuers were killed. In another nearby incident, a 14-year-old German skiers was caught and died instantly. Avalanche danger remains high throughout the Alps.

The Trouble with Parachutes

On that same Sunday, two men took "speed gliders" to the summit of Quandary Peak, a very accessible 14er just south of Breckenridge, Colorado, and launched down the 2.5-mile East Ridge. Speed gliding is a typical Euro-lemming sport where, in this case, one skis along on the ground and periodically raises off the snow surface using a smaller-than-normal ram-air parachute, similar to a paraglider. The idea is to alternately ski and fly, skimming along the surface. The first glider successfully reached the base of the mountain's south face, but the second launcher -according to a separate five-person party who witnessed the incident from the summit - lost lift and pounded into the rocks. The unfortunate flyer received compound fractures of both legs. (A compound fracture is where bones protrude through the skin).

The bystanders stayed with the injured man, in windy -5F temperatures, for nearly 8 hours as Summit County's Rescue Group arrived, and also helped with the initial stabilization and evac. A Lifeguard helicopter based in Denver eventually shuttled three rescuers and med gear to a landing zone roughly 1,000 below the victim. A total of 29 rescuers from various local teams lowered the victim via hand-carrying, toboggan sledding and rope systems. The unnamed unfortunate was supposedly a very experienced 'speed gliding instructor' with many hours of flight time. Regardless, mountain flying is always a sketchy affair, and the wisdom of speed gliding over thinly covered, talus-strewn snowpacks seems dubious.

Far be it from me to discourage andrenalin junkies, after all, they make great blog fodder. But it's worth noting that, no matter how expert or nice they are, extremesport athletes rarely live to old age. See also: Doug Coombs, Shane McConkey, Hans Saari, Patrick Vallencant, Jean-Marc Boivin, Bruno Gouvy, Marco Siffredi, Heini Holzer, Fritz Stammberger, Dan Mackay, Alec Stall, Billy Poole, Paul Ruff, Jamie Hall, Dwain Weston, and David Presson.

The takeaway here? If you're into X Game lemming sports, invest in health insurance with a very low deductible, and REAL rescue insurance, which can be purchased for as little as $150 to $250 per year. The unnamed victim also owes the Summit County Rescue Group, Vail Mountain Rescue, Alpine Rescue Group, Summit County Sheriff's office, and the five hikers who helped him, several kegs of really good beer.

Couple Follows Their GPS Into Remote Snowbound Road

On Friday, Christmas Day, John Rhoads, 65, and his wife Starry, 67, were enroute from Portland, Oregon to Reno, Nevada, when they followed the 'shortest route' recommendation on their automobile gps as it directed them onto Forest Service Road 28, near the small town of Silver lake in the remote Winema-Fremont National Forest. The couple followed their receiver for 35 miles before finally sticking their 4WD Toyota Sequoia in 16-inch deep snow on an uncleared, summer-only track.

The pair remained stuck for three days, but fortunately were prepared enough to carry food, water and warm clothes. When weather cleared on Monday they got a weak cell phone signal and called emergency numbers. Sheriff's deputies followed the phone's gps coordinates and towed them out with a winch. The moral? Don't blindly follow technology. It's amazing how many people do, while being unable to balance that information with things like...the view out their car window. Automobile GPS receivers are extremely accurate (they saved my heinie driving in Wales. U.K., even in roundabouts), but they can't incorporate info like current weather and road conditions into each routing.

Over the past decade, at least five similar events have occurred with winter drivers getting stuck in extremely remote locations like Utah's Smoky Mountain Road, remote BLM roads in the Jarbidge wilderness of Northern Nevada, and western Oregon's Bear Camp Road, where two winter strandings resulted in fatalities. One of those, in 2006 was the widely known James Kim incident, where a CNET tech blogger followed his GPS for miles up an unplowed Forest Service road, then died while trying to get help for his wife and infant son after six stranded days. Winter drivers should always carry emergency supplies, and if the road's snowy, turn around while you still can.

Three Die in Icy Waters

On December 22nd, Cindy Hill, 45, of Columbia, Maryland was taking photos beside a stream in the Greenbrier area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park when she slipped into the icy creek. Ms. Hill was unresponsive when her husband managed to reach her downstream, and was pronounced dead at the hospital. On December 27th, a hiker walking near Nichols Reservoir northwest of Colorado Springs in the Pike National Forest found a man dead on the ice. Authorities believe he fell through while ice fishing and managed to pull himself out, but died of hypothermia a short time later. On the same day, a similar incident occurred at Indian Lake near Denville, New Jersey, one man survived, the other, submerged for 35 minutes, did not.

I've fallen through ice while skiing on pathetically thin snowpack in midwinter Iowa. In my case, I stopped to rewax, stepped off my skis (critical mistake) and dropped through the surface of Coralville Reservoir to hang by my armpits. I managed to extract myself using the tips of my ski poles in dagger style, then had to ski an hour back to my car in -10F headwinds. Fortunately, this was the first time I ever wore a new (at the time) fabric called "synthetic fleece". That saved my ass, since the skin layer dried, and ice formed a windproof shell on the outside. But it was a close thing. Don't mess with frozen lakes. Water drains your body heat 25 to 32 times faster than air (expert opinions vary slightly) but regardless, when water temps are near freezing, that's a very unforgiving calculation.

Miscellaneous Skiing/Snowshoeing/Sea Kayaking Mayhem

A snowshoer survived an unexpected overnight in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire's White Mountains after he got too ambitious and tried to complete a 9.5-mile trek in a day. Trail-breaking and short daylight hours mean most people should halve their summertime mileage goals. Two backcountry skiers got stranded overnight near Turquoise Lake, west of Leadville, Colorado. After calling on a cell phone, they were found the next afternoon and extricated by National Guard helicopter. Fortunately they also carried a sleeping bag, which allowed them to survive the night.

In the high mountains east of L.A., a hiker got stranded by icy conditions on the steep, rugged slopes of Mount San Jacinto (10,834 feet) after hiking away from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which carries many ill-prepared pilgrims from town to the 8,516-foot level, with predictable results. Another hiker separated from his companion while hiking the Devil's Backbone Trail on nearby Mount Baldy (10,064-feet, aka Mount San Antonio). Ground crews and helicopters spent several hours looking for him, before learning he was already safe at home. The San Bernadino Mountains are one of America's SAR hotspots due to their 10,000-foot vertical rises, easy access, and proximity to large urban centers.

Two sea kayakers spent an unexpected overnight in their boat near Estero River in the Florida Keys, after being caught by short daylight hours, and another sea kayaker died in Milford Sound, Connecticut after his tandem 'yak overturned. His companion managed to swim to a nearby boat; He didn't make it. Neither paddler had life jackets.

Stay safe out there campers. Seeya in 2010. --Steve Howe