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Tips For A Safe Winter

What Search and Rescuers Want You To Know This Winter

With a predicted uptick in backcountry users this season, there’s a decent chance more people will need emergency help. So, we called up the search and rescue volunteers who will be coming to save you if you’re in distress to get their words of advice.

In 1976, a 12-year-old boy named Lance Sevison went missing in a storm on the backside of Northstar ski area, near Truckee, California. With no organized search team set up at that time, a scattering of phone calls led to a handful of skiers willing to venture out in search of the boy. It took several days and by then, it was too late: Lance didn’t survive.

Lance’s father, Larry Sevison, knew he could not let such a tragedy befall anyone else. So, together with his friend Doug Read, they started Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue (TNSAR), a volunteer organization in the North Lake Tahoe and Truckee area that works with local sheriff’s departments to conduct dozens of rescues in the backcountry each year. Many of those early volunteers are still active with the organization today.

Sarah Krammen has been a volunteer with Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue for the past few years. She works as a high school math teacher by day, but she’s on call to respond to rescues when her schedule allows. An avid adventurer—in 2019, Krammen biked across Alaska by herself—she initially joined TNSAR for the training, since volunteers get trained in everything from wilderness first aid to high angle ropes rescue to terrain visualization and anatomy of a search. But she’s stuck with the program for other reasons. “There’s the skills you gain from being part of an organization like this, but now, it’s the camaraderie and group of people who show up to volunteer. It’s the giving back to the community,” Krammen says.

In Tahoe and elsewhere, COVID-19 has altered the landscape of training for search-and-rescue volunteers. Much of the training has gone virtual or for smaller groups, while some has been halted entirely. “We have switched to virtual training so we have a force of people healthy to respond if there’s an emergency,” Krammen says. “We’re ready and we’ll be there.”

TNSAR is braced for an uptick in rescues, but so far—fortunately—they’re not seeing it. “Our searches have not been frequent,” Krammen says. “We all anticipated once COVID happened, there would be a lot of searches. Last spring, we had zero.”

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the same thing is happening. “It’s been quiet. We haven’t had a real callout in over a month,” says Stephanie Thomas, executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown last spring, Teton County Search and Rescue issued a notice encouraging backcountry travelers to tone down risk levels. “Since the outbreak, we’ve stressed the importance of backcountry users to being conservative in their decision making so they don't add stress to an already stressed healthcare system,” says Matt Hansen, communications director for the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation. “Our team is ready to respond. They will, however, take various measures to make sure they are not overly at risk of exposure to the virus, which means it may take them longer to reach someone in need.”

The bottom line: As skiers, we don’t want to create accidents that could be preventable and could potentially take resources away from local hospitals and put rescuers in danger—especially during a pandemic. “If someone is hurt in the backcountry, that’s our mission. That’s our charge,” Hansen says. “But we also want to make sure that our rescuers are not putting themselves at risk of exposure.”

“This is a really good time not to be in the hospital,” adds Jordan White, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen, in Colorado. “There is no reason to strain resources or to take up precious beds. Our team, like most across the state, remains rescue ready, and ultimately, we are business as usual with some added precautions, but it’s when we put you back into the main healthcare system that bad choices have the ability to strain resources. Risk tolerance needs to take a few steps down.”

Remember, nearly all search-and-rescue staff are volunteers. “So, when you are hurt in the backcountry, you are taking members away from their family and their own social distancing protocols,” says White. “We would just generally like to see people making good choices that have the best possible outcome. 

In Vermont, Stowe Mountain Rescue fielded 44 calls in 2020. “That was a busy year for us,” says Neil Van Dyke, the Vermont state search and rescue coordinator and one of the original founders of Stowe Mountain Rescue back in 1980. “Anecdotally, we’re certainly observing busier trailheads and more people outdoors, so logic would dictate that that’s a big contributing factor to us having more calls.”

Stowe Mountain Rescue’s in-person training has been halted for now, and Van Dyke says the pandemic has made for more time-consuming changes to operational procedures, from sanitizing equipment to sending fewer people out at a time.

“As we look ahead to this winter, there is definitely some concern in the search and rescue community that there are likely to be more people with less experience out recreating,” Van Dyke says. “We need to make sure these people get the right instruction and have the right gear and right expectations. Overextending yourself in the summer and the winter are very different things. There’s so much more risk in the winter.”

His advice? “Go with someone who’s experienced. Learn from the ground up. Just because you go and buy new backcountry gear doesn’t mean you’re necessarily prepared to go on an adventure,” Van Dyke says.

And if you need help, call 9-1-1 right away. “We’d rather find out sooner than later,” Van Dyke says. “It’s less risky for us the more notice we have. If we have good communications with people, we can often talk them out of the situation without having to go. We always take the position—pandemic or not—that if you need help, call for help. That’s what we’re here for.”

[Flylow is a longtime supporter of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation. Check out the TCSAR Flylow Trucker Hat, with custom art from search-and-rescue volunteer Jen Reddy, which helps raise funds for the organization and create awareness about the importance of local search and rescue operations. Other ways to offer support? Consider volunteering or donating to your local search and rescue organization. If you’re heading into the backcountry, make sure you read up on what you need to know before you go and make sure you’re outfitted with the proper safety gear and know how to use it.]

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