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The Rescue Season Cranks Up

A Friday roundup of the week's SAR News

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Unfortunately, there’s plenty actual search and rescue news to report. At least five significant incidents have happened this week.

Missing Teen Cell Phone Hiker Found in Santa CruzMountains

The one-hour search was initiated by a frantic cell phone call from hiker Matthew Rosenberg (18) to his mother, saying he had a broken leg and was stuck on a cave-strewn mountainside outside of Los Gatos, California, in the Santa CruzMountains. Rosenberg was disoriented and unsure of his exact location, but talked with searchers via cellphone until his batteries ran out. A search dog found him at the bottom of a ravine after a brief 20-minute effort. It turns out Rosenberg hadn’t broken his leg, he’d just eaten too many psychoactive mushrooms and a bit too much LSD. A similar SAR incident occurred in late February in Canyonlands, when rangers responding to an emergency cell call followed a trail of discarded clothing near the Lathrop Canyon Overlook on Island in the Sky, and found a hiker who’d taken nine (9!) hits of acid. Rangers had to restrain the combative overdose victim, and criminal charges resulted.

Elderly Korean Woman Dies Hiking Near Vancouver, B.C.

Seung Lee (73) went hiking in mountainous front country near GoldenEarsProvincialPark, above Maple Ridge, a Vancouver suburb in British Columbia. The diminutive Lee often hiked in the area alone before, but had been suffering recent memory lapses and was dressed too lightly for the April north country weather. Unfortunately, this search came to asad ending. Related factoid: Searches for Alzheimer’s patients are among the most common SAR scenarios.

Solo Skier/climber Still Missing on Mt. Baker, Washington

Kevin LaFleur (31) a fit, experienced mountaineer and teacher at a Christian high school in Lynden, failed to return from an weekend solo climb and ski descent of Washington’s 10,788-foot Mt. Baker, just east of Bellingham.

Third highest mountain in the state and iciest peak in the Cascades, Baker is technically easy, but crevasses, avalanches and brutal whiteouts make it a serious endeavor despite a lack of steep terrain challenges. It gets even nastier weather than most Cascade volcanoes due to its position only 35 miles from the coast. Glacier travel starts at about 6,000 feet, but storms have hampered search efforts higher on the mountain. Recent snowfall and wind may make finding LaFleur’s track increasingly difficult as time progresses.

Based on LaFleur’s reputed expertise, this is probably a crevasse fall incident. In summer, when the main climbing track is packed, and the overlying snow melted off, soloing Baker probably wouldn’t be much of a risk. But whenever wind-drifted winter snows create a minefield of hidden, trap-door snow bridges, solo glacier travel is a serious gamble. Experience is no guarantee; Some of the world’s greatest alpinists have died soloing across glaciers. Unfortunately, as time progresses, the possibility increases that LaFleur is not only deceased, but may never be found.

Skier Dies in Fall on Mt. Sopris, Colorado

Lathrop Strang (46) architect, conservationist, and scion of former two-term Congressman Michael Lathrop Strang, took a fatal fall while skiing the Laundry Chutes on theEast Peak of 12,953-foot Mt. Sopris, west of Aspen, Colorado last Friday.

Apparently Strang missed a turn when he hit funky snow and blue ice near the top of the couloir, which descends directly from Sopris’ EastPeak into the cirque formed by the mountain’s north face. He fell 1,000 feet, cartwheeling over a cliff band. Strang was a lifelong skier and climber who had summited Ama Dablam in Nepal and skied Sopris every spring since 1984.

Lathrop died after the fall as his one companion was going for help – a necessary, but very difficult decision in such situations. Meanwhile three other companions, who had split from the group earlier to take a lower angle descent route, waited at a predetermined rendezvous point and triggered rescue efforts once Strang and friend were overdue. By the time a helicopter landed near Strang, he had already expired.

There aren’t many lessons to learn from this other than the unforgiving nature of steep skiing, and how ‘extreme’ in such cases is often a product of snow conditions rather than sheer angle. Adventure sports are commonly pursued at very high levels these days, and extreme skiing carries significant unavoidable risk.

One of the party, Penn Newhard, is a longtime friend to many Backpacker staff. Strang was an extremely close friend of his. We offer our condolences to the Strang family, the Newhards, and Lathrop’s many other friends in the RoaringForkValley.

Solo Kayaker Missing on the Connecticut River

Solo kayaker Robert Swantak (58) is missing overnight after not returning from a kayak and fiddlehead-fern-gathering trip along the Connecticut River, New England’s largest stream, near Bradford, New Hampshire. The river’s upper section forms the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, then it flows south across Massachusetts and Connecticut to the AtlanticCoast west of Cape Cod.

Swantak’s overturned kayak and life preserver were found several miles downstream from his launch site. The Connecticut River is a wide Class I-II stream with little whitewater. It was, however, in flood stage when Swantak set out, with swift current and floating debris. Swantak is a long-time paddler with considerable experience on the Connecticut and other area streams. There are currently no details about the specific type of boat he was in, or if the cockpit was outfitted snugly enough for Eskimo rolling. The search is ongoing. –Steve Howe

How to Pack for Backcountry Skiing

Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.