Solstice SAR Roundup

Heads up! In this season of hope and joy, there's plenty of trouble if you want it.
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Heads up! In this season of hope and joy, there's plenty of trouble if you want it.

Tis the season for celebration, campers, because we've turned that solstice corner. Ever since 12:47 p.m. on Monday, your days - and your daily outdoor fun window - have been getting longer, not to mention warmer, courtesy of earth's 23.5-degree axial tilt relative to its orbital plane. But it's still winter, and that cold, hard fact is reflected in a lot of recent mishaps.

While the media continues to handwring about the three unfortunate climbers on Mt. Hood, there was no shortage of similar occurrences which didn't make the headlines. They all serve to show us the reduced safety margin that cold, short days, and harsh weather bring this time of year.

Last weekend a Kirkland, Washington couple who were skiing and snowshoeing in Mt. Rainier National Park got stranded overnight and survived by building a snowcave. A major search was gearing up, but they walked out on their own.

Another couple, training for a March adventure race near Aspen, Colorado, got caught in gathering storm when they failed to locate the Goodwin-Greene Cabin south of Aspen Mountain Ski Area. The pair survived by sitting in their lightweight sleeping bags sans tent or pads. Tired, wet and cold from their unexpected bivvy, the duo managed to find the cabin next morning, and spent the day and next night in the rather luxurious shelter. Aerial searchers found them and directed a snowmobile team to the duo, who took a ride back into town. I've never fallen short of a hut in winter, but I've missed a hut in foggy, rainy Alaskan conditions and spent a drippy night wedged under a boulder. It sucks. Always take a tarp and pad on hut trips you aren't familiar with.

Powderhounds were reminded last Saturday that avalanche season is back in swing, when serious slide conditions on Berthoud Pass, a popular bowl-skiing area north of I-70 in central Colorado, resulted in multiple skier/boarder-triggered avalanches. Drivers going over the pass reported seeing one snowboarder caught in a slide, but the ensuing search turned up nothing. This is typical of early season powder skiing, particularly in easily accessed locations. The frenzy of pent-up energy, and multiple parties skiing in pseudo-competitive fashion often leads ski town shredheads into risky behavior. Even beginner and intermediate skiers are perfectly capable of skiing into avalanche terrain. Any heavily loaded, particularly wind-loaded, slope of about 25-30 degrees or steeper is potential slide terrain.

In northern California, two men drowned and another survived after trying to rescue a dog that had fallen into Big Lake, north of the town of McArthur in the Shasta National Forest. The two unlucky brothers were trapped under ice for 20 and 50 minutes respectively and could not be resuscitated. The third man managed to reach shore. The dog survived after more than an hour in the water, which is probably a good reason not to try rescuing animals from ice. They're fur covered and generally weigh less than you. At least take the time to get a rope so you can be pulled back. First rule of all rescues: Don't add more victims.

On Mt. Fuji, Japan, two men died after hurricane force winds tore their tent apart and left them in -13F temperatures. A third member of the party, Ukyo Katayama - a famous Formula One Grand Prix driver and experienced mountaineer who had climbed Denali, Kilimanjaro and several Himalayan summits, managed to survive. He hiked down and met incoming rescuers who had been alerted via cell phone. This is another cautionary tale about the weather potential of big coastal volcanoes that stick up into humid, jet stream winds - just like Mt. Hood.

Meanwhile, three missing sea kayakers are presumed dead in separate incidents, one off the Big Island of Hawaii, one in Lake Superior, and one in New Zealand. Another kayaker missing off the British coast has been found alive. Since I've begun tracking backcountry accidents, I've come to believe that kayaking (and I'm a whitewater kayaker myself) might be the most dangerous sport out there, statistically speaking. It's astounding how many lake, sea and flatwater kayakers die, relative to the participant numbers. The risks of whitewater kayaking are obvious, but most whitewater kayakers wear immersion clothing, life jackets, helmets, and know how to Eskimo roll back up. That's not the case, apparently, in most flatwater accidents. If you paddle, learn how to roll, or at least wet-enter, your boat after a capsize. Always bring immersion gear, and remember that water is a heavy, powerful, ever-changing substance that you cannot fight; You have to work with it, and stay out of it's way.

On one last ominous note: A solo hiker is missing near Canmore, Alberta, Canada. The avid walker, who's out most every day, left no mention of his plans. Searchers hardly know where to start. The moral here is obvious.

So, friends and readers, carry winter gear. Leave notice of your plans. Don't get cocky. And go easy on the eggnog if you're driving. Keep the Noel season joyous, like it should be. -- Steve Howe