Backcountry Essentials: The Rescue Plan

When things go wrong, a self-rescue plan and communication will go a long way

Calling 911 from the backcountry sets in motion a massive rescue effort. PHOTO: Sean Zimmerman Wall

Calling 911 from the backcountry sets in motion a massive rescue effort. PHOTO: Sean Zimmerman Wall

This is a weekly series about backcountry travel and snow safety. Sean Zimmerman-Wall is a full-time ski patrolman at Snowbird, an avalanche educator, and an Andean mountain guide. Check in on Tuesdays for resources and education that will help you have a safe and good season exploring terrain beyond the boundary line.

A group of skiers touring in the Wasatch backcountry drop into a run and the third skier on the slope triggers an avalanche. His partners are unscathed, but he suffers two broken legs. By the time the group attends to their friend and calls 911, it's well past noon. The dispatcher connects the emergency call to an officer at Canyon Rescue, who notes details on the group's whereabouts and the injured skier's condition. Ski patrol and other search-and-rescue crews are mobilized and an air ambulance lifts off from a hospital 20 miles away.

Ninety minutes have passed since the avalanche, and the injured skier is cold and in shock. One partner tries to keep him calm and stable, while the other attempts to signal the rescue teams, but his dark clothes blend in with the surroundings and the chopper has to make a second pass before spotting him. If only he had smoke or something brightly colored to wave in the air.

A team of patrollers arrives nearly two hours after the avalanche occurred. Within 20 minutes, patrollers are skiing the patient out to a trailhead two miles away where the helicopter can land. By the time they reach the landing spot, clouds have rolled in and the helicopter cannot safely take off. Backup ground transportation loads the patient and finally takes him to the hospital by 6 p.m.

The moral of the story is to be aware of the hazards you face in the backcountry. A very similar scenario played out in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah in 2010. Due to the hard work of the dispatchers, county sheriff, fire departments, search and rescue, air ambulance, ski patrol, the helicopter ski operation, and his friends that this young man is still skiing today. Even in an overcrowded range like the Wasatch, help is still a long way away. Being careless not only puts your life in danger, but it brings in the lives of countless others who must come and rescue you.

Communication between backcountry riders, professional rescuers, and mountain workers was another big takeaway from the 2013 Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop (USAW) held earlier this month in Salt Lake City. Most recreational skiers are unaware of the tremendous amount of organization, determination, and various skill sets that go into keeping people safe and responding to accidents.

Keeping communication open amongst your group is essential and having a self-rescue plan in place is your responsibility. Be safe out there. Click-in here for some great info about rescue operations from our neighbors to the North on avalanche rescue.

  Last week’s backcountry tip: Be Professional