John and T.J. Rocky know they’re in a predicament. The father, 48, and son, 20, opted for a morning of backcountry riding, with plans to meet others in their party for a trailside lunch. It’s an overcast day with poor visibility, which is why they decided to search out meadows and play areas rather than take risks on avalanche-prone slopes. While playing, the duo zigged where they should have zagged, and are now at the base of a steep gully. The snow is so sugary that their Polaris RMKs barely have enough traction to go forward, let alone up the ravine. They’re stuck in the remote backcountry of Arapaho National Forest in Colorado.
The Rockys don’t know it yet, but they’re about to become the subjects of a search and rescue operation. Theirs is one of about 20 to 25 winter operations conducted annually by the Grand County Search and Rescue team annually, and one of three different emergencies in Grand Lake, Colorado, in the final week of 2008. In addition to the Rockys, there was a fatal avalanche and a snowmobiler who fell through thin ice.
The National Association for Search and Rescue estimates more than 50,000 search and rescue missions are conducted every year in the United States. These people are in a variety of adverse situations: they’re injured, stranded, buried, submerged, trapped or lost in remote areas.
Exact statistics for snowmobile-related search and rescues are not easy to pin down, but a 13-year snapshot of all search and rescue operations in Colorado shows that snowmobile-related missions were 5 percent of the overall 16,380. (Hikers account for the highest percentage, 27 percent.) Anecdotally, it seems that accidents compose the highest percentage of search and rescue missions, followed by people who are missing (stranded or lost) and then avalanches.
The people who provide this vital and often life-saving service are primarily volunteers — an estimated 90 percent. Grand County, in which Grand Lake lies, culls its search and rescue teams from a list of about 50 area volunteers. There are eight volunteers based in Grand Lake, and one of the county’s three bases of operation is in town. The team includes police officers, a retired professor, a retired florist, snowmobile outfitters, businesspeople and a neurosurgeon. Some have been the object of a search and rescue; others have a real love for the outdoors.
It also includes Patricia Hesch, who got involved because of “the desire to help people, the adventure and just the uniqueness of taking care of people in the backcountry.” She’s been involved in search and rescue for more than 20 years, with a specialty in search theory and avalanche training. Between weekly training classes, weekend skills courses, meetings and missions, she can spend upwards of 30 hours per week on search and rescue-related activities. If she gets a call during work hours, she often takes vacation time from her job with the U.S. Forest Service to perform a mission.
She’s currently an incident commander, which means she’s in charge when a search takes place. At about 8:30 p.m. on December 30, 2008, she became incident commander for the missing Rockys.
The Rockys evaluate their situation. John reaches his friend via his Blackberry and explains that they’re stuck. They look at their maps to pinpoint their location and are able to approximate their whereabouts. They also notice a forest road on the map, seemingly within walking distance. They tell their friends they’re abandoning the sleds and heading to the road. But the going is slow and the daylight wanes. As they descend into the trees, they loose phone reception. By 5:30 p.m., they decide to stop.
They’re at a spot where a small river branches, and they start to collect wood. The use their shovel to dig a fire pit in the snow, and soon have a roaring blaze. They dry out their clothes, which they’ve sweated through. As experienced outdoorsmen, they know they can survive the night. Temperatures dip below zero.
The first tenant of avoiding search and rescue is to operate within your own abilities. “A lot of common sense and prevention would go a long way in preventing accidents,” Hesch says. And, should one find themselves in a predicament, preparation plays a huge role in outcome.
The Rockys, she says, “did a lot of things right, up until the point where they turned left instead of right. They had stuff to make a campfire, they had dry clothes. And once they realized they were in a bad situation, they stopped struggling, saved their energy and hunkered down for the night.”
In spite of their Minnesota address, the Rockys are experienced mountain riders. They take multiple trips out West annually, and they also put thought into what they pack for their daily excursions.
John Rocky goes down the list of supplies they carried that day in a backpack and a bag strapped to the rear rack: two cell phones; two flashlights; a lighter; a survival kit with waterproof matches, an emergency blanket and a whistle; a compact folding saw; a shovel; extra gloves; stocking caps; water; Gatorade; Mountain Dew; small bag of assorted mini candy bars; leftover barbecue ribs; a leftover burrito. Rocky said this list doesn’t vary too much from what they assemble every time they ride — including on trail rides in Minnesota.
When they got stuck, Rocky says survival mode kicked in. “We’ve done enough winter activities to know that if you’re smart and don’t go crazy, it’s not too bad,” he says. It also made a difference that they’re both in good physical shape and that neither was injured. They took stock of their situation, kept their cool and made calculated moves.
“The only concern that we had is that we’d get hurt walking through the woods in the middle of the night so we stopped on purpose,” he says. And even though they knew they could get cell reception if one of them climbed back up the hill, they decided not to separate.
The Rockys’ friends search for the men until it’s dark, but without success. They go back into town and alert authorities. The search and rescue team gathers and begins their search. They mostly stick to the established trail network, and actually ride within a mile of the Rockys’ campsite. But the Rockys don’t hear the snowmobiles above the crackling of their fire. The search team stays out until about 3 a.m., concerned that the men would continue walking until they found a trail. Without further cell phone communication, worries intensify among family and friends.
When the local sheriff determines a search-and-rescue emergency, Hesch and other team members get a page to mobilize to a certain location. Whoever is available will start responding. It can take up to a half-hour to get a team assembled. And they don’t call the person a “victim,” Hesch says. “They’re a subject or a patient.”
Search and rescue teams are not necessarily medical first-responders. While members are typically versed in backcountry first aid, Hesch said they often take field-ready paramedics with them if severe trauma is suspected.
When everyone is gathered at a command post, Hesch will break the group into teams and identify team leaders. Everyone wears the official rescue jacket and outdoor gear, carries their own survival packs and the anticipated medical equipment – they have a special tow-behind backboard for injured patients.
For missing people, such as the Rockys, Hesch will start interviewing friends and family who could know the person’s general whereabouts, what they are wearing and riding, and if they have any medical issues. “The best benefit to me is to be able to give me information I need to figure out what that person could have done,” she says.
In the Rocky case, friends, family and the Rockys themselves were able to narrow down the search area. And, thanks to the cell phone calls and GPS function on John Rocky’s Blackberry, they used cell phone tower triangulation to narrow down their location to a smaller area.
Hesch compares it to another missing person’s case at the end of the season where they had very little information to go on, other than the fact they were on the trail system. “We didn’t have any significant clues to where they might be,” she said. That pair, who never felt they were lost, started a fire, spent the night and walked out in the morning.
Both rescue team members and the Rockys’ friends set out that night to search for the men. If they had reached the trails, they still would’ve been 15 miles away from town. “They would also be exhausted and hypothermic,” she says. She’s also hesitant to send search groups deep off the trail at night: the risk for the rescuers to become subjects themselves is just too great. At 3 a.m., they called off the search until daylight.
This search is the second conducted by the Grand County Search and Rescue this week. Just three days earlier, they responded to an avalanche on Gravel Mountain where two snowmobilers died.
If there’s one statistic that’s increasing, it’s the number of snowmobilers who get caught in avalanches.
“It used to be mostly climbers and backcountry skiers that were avalanche fatalities,” says Bob Comer, avalanche forecaster for the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson, Wyoming. “In fact, the past three season in North America, snowmobilers have made up 50 percent or greater of the fatalities.”
In the 2008-09 season, a full 35 of 54 avalanche fatalities in North America were snowmobilers, including eight riders killed in one incident in British Columbia.
Comer names several underlying reasons for this increase. “One is that better sleds are getting [people] into more avalanche terrain,” he says. “And on a snowmobile, you cover a lot more territory. A skier may ski one or two particular slopes. A snowmobiler may cross 20 or 50 avalanche paths by lunch. There [are] also just a lot of people out there riding.”
When search and rescue teams are called to an avalanche, it’s generally to help recover the body. If a person isn’t killed during the slide — two of 10 die from slide-induced trauma — it will be of suffocation if witnesses don’t move fast, Comer said. In a half-hour, half of buried people will die. In an hour, nine of 10 will be dead. It will take a formal search team at least this amount of time to assemble and deploy. It’s therefore key to ride with a group that knows how to execute a search.
Comer says, on the incredibly fast end, an experienced team prepared with transievers, shovels and probes may find a victim in as little as 8 minutes. On the other end, he’s seen inexperienced and unprepared people searching for friends with nothing more than barbecue forks.
The two who died in the Grand Lake avalanche were, by all accounts, experienced riders. It’s often that people with greater experience take greater risk, Hesch said.
But playing in avalanche country is risky business, Hesch said. “People who choose to recreate in avalanche areas need to have, in my opinion, a much higher level of knowledge and training than for any other type of terrain. Avoidance during times of high avalanche danger is the best method of prevention.”
Neither are the Rockys the final rescue of the week: a snowmobiler also went through the ice on Grand Lake. According to news reports, a passer-by saw a snowmobile break through the ice in the middle of the night. The witness tried to help, but also broke through. By the time the fire department’s ice rescue team arrived, the passer-by had made it to shore and the snowmobiler was on the ice. Rescuers, wearing ice-rescue suits, also broke through the ice several times. The rescue was successful, and though quite cold, everybody survived.
To Gordon Giesbrecht, this is a classic ice-rescue scenario — and also one that highlights misconceptions on falling through the ice.
Giesbrecht, a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba in Winnepeg, is a world expert on cold-water body response. He’s also a certified ice rescue specialist trainer and a snowmobiler.
A typical first response when falling through the ice is panic — not just for the submerged, but for witnesses and even for rescue personnel. This often results in frantic maneuvers to retrieve the victim, and it’s not uncommon for a would-be rescuer to become a secondary victim.
“You need to start with the concept that this person, if they can control their breathing, have tried to get out and have exhausted those possibilities over five or 10 minutes, and recognize that despite everything you see, you think and have learned in your life that says, ‘This person is going to die soon,’ know that if they can become stable at the ice edge they can live for an hour or more,” he says. “Then think, ‘If this person can live for an hour or more, what can I do?’” The one exception is fast-moving water where a subject could be swept under: that’s a more tactical rescue.
One may have to perform a rescue with items in the vicinity, or there may be time to get supplies from a cabin or call trained rescuers. But clear thought is essential. Giesbrecht recalls one scenario where the victim drowned while his companions attempted several rescues with a short tree branch. In their frenzy, they forgot they had a towrope in their snowmobile.
The most simple rescue technique is to stand on a solid surface and toss a rope with a large loop to the victim. The victim then slips it over the head and under the armpits before the rescuer pulls. A professional rescue operation will generally involve personnel with drysuits or special ice-rescue suits, ropes, and, in some cases, airboats.
Geisbrecht recommends snowmobilers wear flotation snowmobile gear, carry 50 feet of rope in each snowmobile, and have a “bomb-proof way to start a fire.” Once out of the water, the victims’ clothes should be wrung out at the very least, preferably in a sheltered area. Then they can be dried over an open fire.
If riding companions are able to make the rescue, chances are that it’s quick enough not to medically compromise the submerged. If it’s longer than 15 minutes, a person can become mildly hypothermic or worse, depending on length of time in the water.
The Rockys don’t sleep much that night. When daylight comes, T.J. starts cutting green wood to make a smoky signal fire and John climbs up a slope until he gets cell phone reception. He’s unable to make a call, but is able to send and receive text messages. He describes their location, and search and rescue tells them to stay put. They can hear snowmobiles higher up in the mountains and when the machines stop, John blows a whistle. Rescuers can’t hear the whistle, nor can they see the signal fire. By 11 a.m., the Rockys get tired of waiting and know that a search party is coming in on the forest road. They make an arrow at the campsite to point the direction they’re walking, and then head to the forest road. The snow is deep and the going is slow, but they know help will come via the forest road. After about 40 minutes of walking through knee-deep snow, they hear voices and meet the rescuers, who are coming in on skis. After a quick health check, the Rockys don snowshoes from the rescuer. The four walk and ski 3 miles back to the snowmobile trail where they board snowmobiles and return to their anxious family. The whole next day was spent with their friends, retrieving the stuck machines.
“We call it our ‘Overnight Camping Experience’ not our ‘Lost Experience,” says John Rocky. The men are still embarrassed about the incident, and a bit hesitant to talk about it after initial media backlash to the incident.
Though they did many things right, Rocky says he’s learned a few lessons from the experience. First, he says he’ll now only ride backcountry with a group of four or more — a sled stuck in deep powder is difficult to remove with just two. He wishes he’d had a better topographic map so he could’ve pinpointed their location earlier with better accuracy. He’s considering a more serious GPS that could pinpoint an exact location.
Hesch was also happy for the safe return, and says the team learned a lot about cell phone capabilities from the experience, including triangulation and that text messages use less bandwidth than a regular call. The team also appreciated the sincerity of thanks from the Rockys and their group. Other lost parties are sometimes not as grateful, she says.
The Grand County Search and Rescue operates from a small annual budget, and relies on donations for support — and rescued parties often are the best donors, Hesch said. There is no charge for their services; they prefer that people call for help based on need, not potential expense.
The Rockys feel compelled to help, too. John, who’s an IT professional, plans to donate computers necessary to upgrade the team’s technology infrastructure. He also says that next time he’s in Grand Lake, he owes some rescuers dinner at the restaurant of their choosing.
And there will be a next time. The Rockys aren’t scared off of mountain riding. Less than two months later, they were in West Yellowstone, Montana, on another adventure.
What to do if…
You’re in an avalanche
Traditionally, people have been instructed to swim or struggle in order to stay at the surface of the snow and punch an arm or leg up as the avalanche slows. Current thought is to try to keep hands close to the face so you can dig an air pocket before the slide solidifies — which happens in seconds when the slide stops. An air pocket could give you valuable minutes of oxygen; an arm sticking out could help rescuers find you more quickly. The most important protection is to wear a transceiver beacon – and have people in your party equipped with transceivers, probes and the knowledge of how they work.
You’ve gone through the ice
Follow the 1-10-1 Principle. As impossible as it sounds, try not to panic. Take one minute to get your breathing under control. Then, find the area with the thickest ice, typically behind you, and spend 10 minutes trying to get out. Place your arms on the ice and kick your legs so you’re horizontal. Then try to beach yourself like a whale. Don’t get out as if you were in a swimming pool: it may be too much pressure on the ice, and you’ll use valuable strength in the attempt. If you get out, crawl or roll to safer ice or the shore. If you can’t get out, conserve your energy. Place your arms on the ice so they’ll freeze to the surface and know that you have one hour or more to survive.
You’re lost or stranded
Stay with your snowmobile. You’ll be easier to find, and any tracks you make walking away could disappear with wind or fresh snow. If you try to walk out, stop when it’s dark: it’s too easy to get disoriented or injured. While waiting, try to make yourself “big” by scent, sight or sound — start a fire or blow a whistle. If you’re in a group, stay together. Conserve your energy. If you have a cell phone, remember that a voice connection may not be possible, but a text message may go through. Your pre-planning of packing essential survival gear and sharing your riding plan will now come in handy.
You witness an accident
Determine the extent of injuries: whether they’re life threatening or if the person will be OK. Then gauge what assistance you can provide. If you’re not comfortable administering first aid, you’re better off going for help. If going for help, pinpoint your approximate location on a trail map and reset your trip meter or note the location on your GPS. If there are two people in your group, at least one should stay with the victim.
10 Essentials For Survival
• A light. A headlamp is preferred so you have
your hands free
• Fire starter: matches, a lighter and a candle
• A pocketknife, preferably a multi-tool variety
• Some sort of signal, such as a whistle or a
• A compass or GPS — and know how to use them
• A shelter of some sort, such as a space blanket
• Extra food and water
• A first aid kit
• Sunscreen and sunglasses
• Additional dry clothing