Backcountry rescue story - Mountain Buzz

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Old 02-27-2011   #1
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 652
Backcountry rescue story

We were staying at a backcountry hut, one guy got lost, we called 911, Vail Mountain Rescue responded, and found him.

He got split from his group of 4 coming through trees. He was 1/4 mile from the hut and overnight snow made tracks easy to follow. No other tracks but ours and he still got lost. More below on his mistakes.

His group got back at 11:30am. We started searching at 1pm. At 2:15 pm, we called 911, who forwarded us to Vail Mountain Rescue dispatch. Dispatch said they would have someone there soon and told our group leader that the best thing we could do to help them was to get everyone back to the hut.

We got everyone back to the hut. After serious discussion of last known location, where we had scoured, and where fresh tracks after overnight snow led, we were pretty clear the lost guy was down a thickly forrested gully. Our careful search had elimated all other possibilities. We called dispatch at 3:30pm and relayed the information. Their response: "it is very unlikely he went that way".

More serious discussion: same conclusion. We called dispatch at 4:00pm and relayed the information. Dispatch said "no", and the rescue team will be there soon and our two strongest guys should be ready to go when the team arrived.

Rescue showed up at 7:30pm! Our frustration at the late arrival quickly evaporated when we saw how professional they were. They were clearly ready and capable of searching all night for our friend.

After a 5 minute discussion, the rescuers agreed with our conclusion. They found him in 20 minutes because the lost guy had finally retraced his steps. Because of total darkness, he had built a snow cave 1/4 mile from the hut. He was in the cave for 2 hours, which took him 30 minutes to build. He was fine.

Vail Mountain Rescue accepted our offer of Paelle & Gingerbread and left. It was kind of funny that you make a phone call, these impressive professional guys show up, solve the problem, and split. No paper work. Kind of like calling Batman.

We felt guilty that they had mobilized 8 people and 4 snowmobiles for 7 hours, 3pm-10pm. We are greatful that if our friend had stayed in the gully, they would have found him and taken care of him. We have no problem with them showing up at 7:30--it clearly takes time to get ready for serious situations.

If we had been out waiting at the top of the gully, we would have found him 4:00-5:00pm and saved Vail Mountain Rescue time and money. We may have carefully sent our two or three strongest down the thickly forrested gully for a short ways. We weren't equiped to spend the night.

Instead of dispatch telling us to return to the hut, wouldn't it have been better to say something like "make sure the search doesn't create an additional victim", or "make sure all search is done in teams with reliable communication, clear route finding, and ability to return by dark with margin for error". Yea, we might be idiots, but you can only do so much to protect people from themselves.

Why did dispatch give us the impression rescuers were coming around 4:30pm? Isn't clear communication important in these situations?

Clear mistakes:
The guy who got lost did some real stupid things: he didn't have a radio/phone/map/gps; split off his group of 4 people; when following tracks back to the hut he took a wrong turn and started breaking trail but kept going; after following a road he suddenly turned into a deep gully with thick trees; when he got to a mystery trail head after 4 miles/3 hours skiing at 2pm he turned around to come back up with little chance of finding the hut before sunset.

Perhaps his group members should have waited, but with the hut 1/4 mile away and easy tracks to follow, they regrouped in the hut.

To his credit:
He built a good snow cave. And when he built his snow cave 30 feet off the trail, he crossed his skis over the trail so night searchers easily found him.

I think our friend did make major goofs, but hindsight is 20/20 and we all have our strengths and weaknesses. My weaknesses are in other areas. I'm better but I'm more likely to put myself in a dangerous situation.

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Old 02-27-2011   #2
Steamboat, Colorado!
Paddling Since: 2005
Join Date: Sep 2005
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Was this Eisman hut?
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Old 02-27-2011   #3
dillon, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2000
Join Date: Feb 2008
Posts: 293
He didn't retrace his own tracks? The terrain around Eismann, if this is where it occurred is pretty straightforward...also I would never listen to s&r if they told me to go back and quit searching for my friend...I can evaluate the hazards around me way better than a person who isn't in the area. Also, the majority of the people I go on hut trips with are competent and could easily have pulled off a search operation safely and efficiently, thats why I go with them. Thanks for posting, its always interesting to read about how things go down in different situations, I'm glad everyone was ok!
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Old 02-28-2011   #4
Ashland, Oregon
Paddling Since: 2003
Join Date: Jul 2008
Posts: 128
Glad everything turned out okay. Your friend did a lot of things right once he realized he was lost - kudoes. Regarding your questions about the guidance you got from the SAR team, have you had a post-rescue meeting with them to discuss? Every SAR team I've been a part of or worked with has been keenly interested in backcountry user education (Preventive Search and Rescue), so I'm guessing they'd love to sit down and explain their perspective over beer or coffee.
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Old 02-28-2011   #5
Salida, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1993
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 518
It's pretty simple actually, you called SAR due to a lost skier, they do not want any extra victims. When calling into dispatch they do not know what you or your group capabilities are, and since you are calling in for a lost skier SAR's best guess is that your group might not be strong enough to pull off the rescue. If you were strong enough to pull of the rescue you would not have called SAR.

The second part of this is they also do not want to be following around extra tracks that a disorganized party will lay down.

Yes, it does take time for them to get there, you are in the backcountry, they are volunteers that were at home with friends and family. They had to leave what ever else they were doing, get dressed, grab their packs, drive to the rescue hut, organize more gear, drive to the trailhead, gear up and then ski into your area.

I am glad that you had a good outcome to this, I also hope you now have a greater appreciation to what backcountry actually means, and for the awesome volunteers of your local SAR team.

This is a good reminder to all who go into the backcountry that you are the best help your partners or others have.
Get educated, WFR, Avy Class, SRT, that way you can handle the situation.
Carry a means to communicate to the outside world, cell phones don't always work, get a SPOT, PBIRB, Sat phone.

Think about and discuss with your group your overall plans and ambitions for the trip and what to do if it does not go as planned.

All of this does not matter whether you are skiing or boating, for example we all love to get into bailey, it is a great remote front range run. Think about if something happens in their your group can't handle, I have no idea how long it would take for a trained swiftwater team to get in there, I would bet it would either be Golden or Summit County.

Sorry for the long rambling rant.
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Old 02-28-2011   #6
Join Date: Nov 2005
Posts: 652
Isn't there a middle ground between us NOT calling SAR and trying to pull off the rescue ourselves and us calling SAR and waiting on our hands for 5 hours of daylight while waiting for SAR to show up at night?
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Old 02-28-2011   #7
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Join Date: Apr 2005
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Why aren't whistles considered to be an essential part of backcountry gear? It's so easy to get separated in trees.
Grif for President!
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Old 02-28-2011   #8
The next zone, .
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 1,200
It is amazing to me that folks will spend $1000 bucks on bc ski's, boots, avy gear, and the lot but will not spend $50 on a "bubba" radio that will let you communicate with your group.. From what you said a $50 radio would have solved your problem very quickly..

We access stuff a bit differently than most but the way we see it is that a simple wal mart or bubba radio can be just as important as any other piece of rescue gear you can carry.

If you are in the bc and dont have a radio you are not as prepared as you should be..
"I feel better than any other time when I am in the mountains and uh I cant explain it ya know...." - Shawn Farmer..........
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Old 02-28-2011   #9
mountains, Colorado
Paddling Since: '92
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The one major mistake was the group splitting up. It is everyones' responsibility to make sure all members are accounted for. Had you followed this basic rule, all your other points would quickly become moot.
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Old 02-28-2011   #10
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Lakewood, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1989
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Originally Posted by deepstroke View Post
Why aren't whistles considered to be an essential part of backcountry gear? It's so easy to get separated in trees.
Agreed. Getting lost in Colorado is not too difficult. Getting lost in a place like Wisconsin is easier than getting wet by pissing in the wind. The only time in my life I got separated in the middle of the day and completely lost. It was fixed in 5 min with a whistle. You can be 5 feet off the trail and totally invisible in many situations and a whistle becomes your best friend.
On the river, I can abandon who I am and what I've done. However brief it lasts, while on the river I am nothing important and everything insignificant. I am flotsam, and happy to be so.
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