“I am most alive among the tall trees…”
It’s supported you loyally throughout the years, but bringing worn out gear into the backcountry can do you far more harm than good. Here’s a quick guide of when to replace key gear.
Your boots should be allowed to go hike the great trail in the sky when:
-Your soles wear thin and smooth. It’s critical that your boots have excellent traction. From creek crossings to that granite slab traverse, when you’re on slippery or wet surfaces you need a strong grip if you don’t want to risk life and limb with every step.
-Your boot develops an uncomfortable fold or kink that hurts your foot and shortens your hike. Pain is no fun and can distract you into making bad decisions that could affect the safety of your hike, or at the very least make it miserable.
-Your boot’s upper delaminates or the threading starts sticking out of the seams. Either of these can compromise the weatherproofing of your old friend. This can turn from annoying to downright dangerous in the winter. Nothing will lead to frostbite faster than a set of poor sealing shoes in cold wet conditions.
Packs can be the longest lived of your gear. Kind of like Frankenstein’s monster, most worn out components like ripped seams, torn up shoulder straps, and hip-belts can be repaired or replaced. Unfortunately, sturdy old models tend to weigh in on the heavier side and lack many useful newer options. Upgrading your pack to a lighter, more convenient version can help better distribute your load and make your hikes a heck of a lot more enjoyable.
Your trusty old tent has weathered blown seams, broken zippers and shattered poles with simple repairs and replacements, but use caution when deciding to milk that last bit of life out of your shelter. Eventually even the walls will degrade, and a torrential downpour in the backcountry is a dangerous place to discover that your old tent leaks like a sieve. Test your tent every season with a simulated extended downpour to make sure it can truly weather the storm.
Even with proper care, your sleeping bag fill will eventually lose its ability to keep your toes toasty warm. Synthetic fills can last you five (or more) years with good care, and down may survive up to ten. Note: improper laundering, or storing your bag compressed can significantly shorten this number. It’s time for a new bag when the old one looks deflated, has flat spots, or just no longer keeps you warm.
Cheaper headlamps will need to be replaced more often, as buttons fail, controls get twitchy and the connections to the batteries wear out. Upgrade to a good quality headlamp (with extra batteries). You can keep an older model around to avoid black widows on trips into the storage space, but don’t make the mistake of heading miles into the backcountry with an unreliable light strapped to your noggin.
It’s often hard to give up something that has done a good job for you over the years. Nostalgia has its place – so reward your old gear’s loyalty by giving it a place of honor on a display shelf, but don’t bring it out onto the trail.
There is an abundance of amazingly delicious and nutritious wild foods directly outside your back door. One of my favorites is wild (or even domestic) rose hips. You can make jam, jelly, syrup or just a simple tea out of these lovely “rose berries”.
A rose hip forms after a rose has been successfully pollinated. Gradually the bulb underneath the flower swells and turns into a bright red or orange fruit with a thin layer of pulp surrounding the seeds and fine hairs of the core. After the first frosts, the pulp becomes slightly soft, sweet and fruity- and enormously rich in vitamin C. When German submarines interfered with citrus shipments to England during World War II, the British turned instead to Rose Hips as their source of this vital vitamin.
Rose Hip Tea is my favorite form of this lovely wild food. It’s deliciously refreshing and packed with vitamins and minerals. I love it as a wonderful wintertime pick-me-up anddrink it just about daily throughout the colder months.
Making tea from fresh hips:
1. Place your (washed) rose hips into a small pot and cover with water.
2. Bring the water to a boil for 3-5 minutes. (Depending on strength tea desired).
3. Turn off the heat and use the back of a spoon to smash open each rose hip.
4. Let them steep in the water for up to 20 minutes.
5. Turn the burner back on to rewarm your tea. Pour your delectable beverage through a coffee filter into your waiting mug.
6. Enjoy your sweet and fruity delight!
Prepping the Rose Hips for storage, making tea from dried hips:
1. Harvest rose hips sometime after the first frost of the year (it’s wise to use protective gloves, since their thorns can really cut you up!)
2. Dehydrate them either in a dehydrator or the sun.
3. Grind hips in food processor into a rough consistency to help separate the outside skin and pulp from the fine inside hairs. Do not over-grind, as this will make it difficult to sieve out the pulp from the hairs in the next step.
4. Tip your rose hips into a metal sieve, and gently shake back and forth to remove the hairs. They should all easily fall through, leaving you with just the skin/dried pulp. You don’t need to remove the seeds as well- unless you have more time than you know what to do with! NOTE: these hairs used to be used to make itching powder, so this is a necessary step!
5. Store for use as tea (or for making jelly or syrup!) in an airtight container. Use a tea ball or small cheesecloth bag to brew your tea. Let it boil for 5-7 minutes depending on strength desired. Let them steep in water for 20 minutes.
The call comes in at 3:30 AM. It’s my partner Lee. “They need a helicopter hoist team for a lost hiker on Skyline”. My bed is warm and my fuzzy flannel sheets are so comfy… But this is more important than a few hours sleep! “Count me in”, I slur with sleep still in my voice.
Shaking my head to clear it, I throw the warm covers back, roll out of bed and head straight for my gear closet. Perfect! My Go-Pack is still full from the last mission. I dig around inside – ticking off my mental checklist. Good, everything is accounted for. I refill my Nalgene, pull on my pants and shrug into my fluorescent orange uniform shirt.
Within 15 minutes I’m already on the way to pick up Lee. Another speedy half an hour drive down the mountain puts us in the parking lot at RSO Aviation. One more cross check of gear and we head straight into the hanger.
Pilot Chad Marlett and TFO Manny Romero are on tonight. The Aviation crew are all amazing guys and exceptional at what they do – we really enjoy working with them and readily trust them with our lives.
Following protocol we do a brief review of the Screamer suit and rescue gear, then load our packs and ourselves into the helicopter. I clip the seat belt together, strap on a headset and snug it down over my ears, bending the microphone down directly in front of my mouth.
“Good to go?” Lee and I give Manny a thumbs up and a verbal confirmation of “oh yeah!”. Manny confirms we are securely strapped in, then cranes his neck around out the door, scanning one last safety check of the environment as Chad preps for takeoff.
One minute we’re on the ground feeling the increasing thup……..thup…. thup ..thup.. thup.thup of the accelerating rotor, the next the ground swings eerily away beneath us , disappearing into the black.
We discuss the mission on our headsets as we watch the twinkling city lights cruise by beneath us. “Want to hear the transcript?” Manny briefly reviews the mission notes and original call text with us.
Our subject called 911 for help with a weak cell signal. He had been hiking all night and was now trapped off trail in the thick brush of the coastal mountain range, unable to hike any further. He was scratched up, dehydrated, exhausted, and utterly disoriented by his efforts. He described seeing red blinking lights on a nearby hill. The 911 operator told him to stay put and await further contact, but RSO has not been able to raise him again. He has likely run out of battery. As is often the case in emergencies, people don’t think to conserve their batteries until it is nearly too late.
The only “red blinking lights” in the area are a set of radio towers. A ping of the subject’s cell phone put his location at 2 miles Southeast of the towers, but it’s best not to put complete trust in these coordinates. Over the years we’ve learned that since they tend to ping to the nearest cell tower, they can sometimes be miles off.
Chad suggests we start in the vicinity of the towers. In the subject’s description he said he could see the flashing lights on a NEARBY hill. I agree. “That ping is too far south for him to see the lights clearly.” It’s generally best to trust a subject’s physical description over a set of cell coordinates. Hopefully our subject has followed instructions and hasn’t moved.
We reach the edge of the city lights and venture out and above the inky black mountain slopes. Manny hands back a pair of night vision goggles. As I raise them to my eyes the world below lights up with an eerie green brightness. Ridges and valleys jump out in a rough grainy contrast. I pass them over to Lee for a quick acclimatization.
We start our search near the radio towers, cruising slowly in the air up and down each ridge and Canyon, eyes intently searching for something, anything that will signal us that our subject is here.
In addition to a spotlight, we also have a set of cameras that allow us to pick heat signatures and the night vision goggles which will starkly reveal anything more reflective/bright than the background of dense scrub brush.
Manny, Lee and I scan the landscape as Pilot Chad concentrates on the added difficulties of mountain flying. The steep ridges guide and magnify any wind into strong updrafts, and each time we cross a ridge he must slow down to compensate for the increased rpm of the blades. Even a slight breeze over this rugged terrain can increase the risk of our flight.
We know our subject is likely on top of a ridge, since he was able to see the radio towers. We fly for a while, scanning the ridgelines, seeing nothing but thick brush and short stumpy trees crammed in tightly along the hillside and steep slopes.
The goggles make everything much clearer, but nothing is jumping out at us. We’re starting to get discouraged… The Eastern sky is just starting to lighten, and now we’re racing against time to try and find him at night. Most people don’t realize that it’s easier for us to see most signals at night, Anything bright or reflective will instantly jump out at us. The contrast of even a small light or reflection stands out against the dull black of night far more than during the bright light of day. The pilots say that in the right conditions they can see the light from a cell phone 3 miles away.
Hunting as a child with my father, I learned to let my eyes go slightly unfocused to search the terrain for patterns and movement. When searching, focusing your eyes or your mind too hard on any one point can give you a myopic view and make you overlook whats right in front of you.
The guys are scouring the ground with their night vision goggles, and I am left with my naked eye. After what seems like an eternity, but is probably just another half hour, something on a ridgeline snags the edge of my eye.
“Wait. Go back. To the North. I saw something.” Chad swings the helicopter around. I verbally direct the beam of his spotlight to a spot on the ridgeline below us. There, silhouetted in the circle of light is our subject- a tiny dot with a white shirt jumping up-and-down wildly. Its nice to get confirmation on our decision- the cell ping was definitely off!
“Alright!” I can hear the grin in Chad and Manny’s voices.
We examine the ridge nearby. It’s a jumble of high brush and short stunted trees, “there’s no place to land” reports chad. … and nowhere to easily hike in from. “We’ll have to hoist him out”.
We circle over him for a better position and Chad turns on the loudspeaker. “Wave your hands if you can understand us”. A few enthusiastic hand waves from the subject later, The flight crew gets confirmation that he can indeed hear us and will stay put as we fly away to reconfigure the helicopter for a hoist. The subject hunkers down under the shelter of the tall brush to wait as we fly away.
Chad beelines the helicopter to landing area at the base of the foothills, and the aircrew rapidly reconfigure the helicopter for the hoist.
This takes time, by the time we are flying back through the canyons the first rays of the sun are hitting the mountain slopes. Since our subject looks like a heavy guy, It is decided that we will leave Lee on the hillside after we hoist the Subject and come back for him later. Chad sets the helicopter into a hover and Manny hoists Lee and then me down directly onto the hillside near our subject.
Lee pulls the bright Red screamer suit out of his pack. It looks like a combination between a jacket and a diaper, designed to be simple to put on in an emergency and very secure. We help the subject strap himself in “put your arms through the holes like a jacket” I cinch the inner waist belt tight as Lee brings the straps together from each shoulder and between the subjects legs. He secures the front rings together with a locking carabiner at chest level.
After a quick but thorough briefing for the subject of what’s going to happen next and helicopter safety, we signal the TFO that we’re good to go.
In a great show of piloting Chad manages to put the hoist directly into my hand on the first try. I clip in, wave my hand in our exaggerated “lift me up” signal and enjoy the ride. Before you know it I’m at the skids and walking my hands upward to the TFO’s chest Carabiner. Into the helicopter, clip into the seatbelt, unclip the hoist and hand it to Manny. Soon thereafter the anxious face of the subject appears over the edge of the deck. He stares straight forward, clasping the cable tight, petrified by his first hoist and helicopter flight, but manages to follow all of our instructions perfectly.
Within minutes we are back at the landing zone. Everything goes smoothly in the subject handoff to the deputies on scene and we head back for Lee. In a great mood, we fly back the hanger (and a much anticipated breakfast!) .
On the last few rescues there has been a very distinct chill in the air. One thing I’ve learned through hard experience is that the essence of staying safely warm in the winter wilderness is having the proper clothing layers and knowing how to use them effectively. Here’s some info to help keep you toasty while hiking this winter.
So why are some materials warmer than others?
It’s all in the air. Clothing helps hold “dead air” against your skin. This dead air is heated up by the body, providing a layer of warmth. The actual insulating value of your clothing is due to the thickness of dead air space it can hold. Your body is the true heat source, the clothing layers only serve to trap the heat and slow down your heat loss to the cold environment.
So what are the best ways to save this “dead air”?
1. Choose the right layers The key to staying toasty is by having a number of versatile layers of clothing to provide an appropriate amount of dead air space. Each layer should have unique properties to hold, protect and allow you to adjust your temperature as necessary.
-AVOID Cotton: During the winter cotton is downright deadly as it loses all its dead air when wet and thus its insulating properties. Wet cotton is worse than dry bare skin and will rapidly suck the warmth from your body.
-Polypro or other Synthetic base layer: Keep your body in a snug (not tight) synthetic layer designed to wick moisture AWAY from your skin. Synthetic fibers like polypropylene don’t hold water, so your sweat is driven outward beyond the synthetic layer and away from your skin. This prevents evaporative cooling and creates a thin protective layer of warm air.
-Wear Wool: Wool’s insulating ability comes from the elastic, wavy crimp in its shape that traps air between fibers. Depending on texture and thickness, as much as 60-80% of wool cloth can be air! Because the water “disappears” into these fiber spaces, wool can absorb a large amount of moisture while still keeping enough dead air space to keep you warm. (Note: although not as versatile, fleece is an acceptable option as well).
-Down jacket: Lightweight and highly compressible, down feathers are very efficient insulators. They provide excellent dead air space for very little weight. Unfortunately, if the feathers get wet they clump, lose dead air space and all their insulating power. Keep your down safely wrapped in a waterproof bag until you need it.
-Wind and waterproof outer shell – it is essential to have an outer layer that is wind and waterproof while still having the ability to ventilate and allow excess heat and sweat to escape. Gore-tex and other similar fabrics are good options. Having underarm (pit) zippers on jackets greatly increases your ability to ventilate.
-Hand gear: bring mittens!
Ever notice your hands feel colder after putting on a thin pair of gloves? It’s physics baby! When a thin layer of insulation is wrapped around a small diameter curved surface (finger), it increases the surface area and can actually increase heat loss until a thickness of about 1/4″. Good motivation to bring backup mittens (which get around this problem by combining finger pockets) for extra cold conditions.
-Headgear- hats are essential in winter travel. The head has a very high surface to volume ratio and is heavily vascularized, so you can lose a great deal of heat without headgear. A balaclava or facemask may be required if it is windy to prevent facial frostbite.
2. Have a dry backup- and use it! Always have a dry backup of critical clothing and don’t wait too long to change into it after you stop moving. Heat loss from a wet surface can be up to 25 times quicker than a dry one. I’ve hiked with a person who forgot this cardinal rule. She went to bed too exhausted to take off her wet socks. She woke up with toes permanently damaged from frost-bite.
3. Right size clothing: Layers that are too tight will constrict the body’s circulation so that it’ll have a tough time warming up, especially in your extremities. Tightness will also compress your clothing and actually reduce dead air space- decreasing your insulation. Beware though: Too loose and your clothing can act as a bellow and actually blow out warm air and suck in cold.
Have a great winter, and stay toasty!
Hiking up the steep slope of a mountain can be hot and sweaty business. The refreshingly cool feeling of raindrops merrily pelting off your head in a sudden downpour can be a very welcome relief. Getting rained on can be fun, but it’s easy to get chilled to the bone if you’re not properly prepared. Unpredictable storms can very suddenly change your hiking conditions from dry and hot, to cold, wet and miserable in a matter of minutes.
But getting caught in the rain without all your hi-tech hiking gear doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. Although there are plenty of great tips for prepping yourself for rain, today we’ll be focusing on some options that I always carry with me, rain or shine.
They are waterproof, durable, economical, lightweight and come in a wide variety of sizes. That’s right, the humble plastic bag will finally given a chance in the spotlight as a top tool for emergency rainy day duty.
Plastic bags: your hiking buddies!
You want a versatile, durable, waterproof, multi-use item? Plastic bags meet all the criteria! They come in all shapes and sizes and can (at least temporarily) solve almost any backcountry rainy day need.
Backpack cover and stuff sack: I swear by large, 2 (or more) heavy duty contractor bags. You’ll find them in my pack for anything from a day hike to an extended thru-hike. These flexible black bags will serve you as a waterproof backpack cover and can also be packed around your sleeping bag and clothing for extra protection.
Remember, even the best backpack cover won’t protect your dry gear from a wet jacket or tent once it’s stuck inside your pack for travel.
Bonus: your handy dandy contractor bags can also be used as emergency rain ponchos, bivys (place two end to end), water carriers, waterproof seats for that wet log…basically anything you can come up with…..
-Miniature Dry Bags: Keep cell phones, cameras, and any other small dry items in small Ziplock baggies for easy access.
-Use one-gallon Ziplock bags to pack your clothes. This will keep them dry in case your pack gets wet.
-Waterproof map case: Want to keep your map dry, but also need to pull it out repeatedly in a deluge? Stop hunching over it in a vain attempt to keep it from disintegrating in the rain, just store it in a gallon sized ziplock and you’ll be good to go!
PRODUCE AND SHOPPING BAGS
-Emergency “clothes”: Didn’t bring any gloves and a freezing wet wind is turning your fingertips blue? Plastic produce bags to the rescue! Inflate them slightly with just enough air to keep them from direct contact with your skin, stick your hands in and tie them around your wrists. The “dead air” space you’ve created will help insulate your hands from the worst of the cold. keep in mind that this is a short term solution, so head back to warmth and safety ASAP.
-Don’t have waterproof shoes and need to keep your feet dry in an emergency? Bring plastic produce bags or grocery bags to slip over your sock and stick your foot back inside your shoe- close the gap at your ankle with a rubber band- voila! You’ve got a short term rain barrier to keep your tootsies toasty till you can get back home
NOTE: I’m a big proponent of bringing the ten essentials on every hike, so please don’t take this as an invitation to leave out important pieces of gear in an effort to save time, money or weight. The best tip for dealing with a rainy day is adequate planning, preparation and packing. These tips/tools are not meant to replace any of the 10 essentials, but they sure are nice to have if you’ve let yourself slip and be taken off guard or need to supply someone less prepared that you meet along the trail.
Be Found Faster.
Admit it, you’re lost. It’s a scary feeling, especially if you’ve been out for more than one day, even more so if you have hurt yourself badly enough that you can’t travel far. In addition to your ten essentials and adequate preparation for your trip, here’s a (not comprehensive) list of some goodies that might help a rescue crew pinpoint your location and get you home safe.
Signal mirror. You can either use a mirror dedicated for this purpose with a sighting hole or just bring along your standard compass with a built in mirror. On a sunny day, a well aimed mirror can help you catch the air crew’s eye.
Reflective Emergency blanket. Not only is it surprisingly warm for it’s size and weight, but it is one REALLY big reflective surface, which can be spotted from pretty far away.
VERY bright clothing. Take a tip from 80s fashion and go fluorescent, the brighter the better. That sage green shirt complements your complexion so well, but it won’t help you get spotted!
Get in the open or on a (safe) high point and make BIG arm movements if you see a helicopter. The helicopter may be obvious to you silhouetted against a clear blue sky, but from their vantage point you look like an ant in the grass.
Spot with texting, Satellite phone. Ask for help directly. The more information about your location and current condition you can give emergency resources, the better they can adjust their response- bringing the right equipment and personnel.
Flashlights and headlamps, especially if you have ones with a strobe mode can help to quickly call attention to your location at night.
Bring a (charged) Cell phone- not only can they be used to help contact authorities and roughly pinpoint your location if you have a weak cell signal, their light can be surprisingly visible from the air at night, sometimes up to several miles away in the right conditions.
Extra batteries for all these gadgets!
Signal fire. The word fire makes us all nervous, and rightly so. But sometimes a flame at night or smoke during the day can be the thing that leads rescuers your way. But be extremely careful, you don’t want to create another, much larger emergency!
Whistle. Not all search efforts will come from the air. Ground searchers can hear things that a helicopter crew cannot. Long after your voice would become raw from yelling, you can still blow a whistle.
-Leave obvious tracks. If you must move (to find shelter or to remove yourself from danger) make sure to leave obvious tracks. Dragging your feet in the ground, making arrows to your location, and being as obvious as possible can give ground searchers something to work with.
This is in no way a comprehensive list of what to bring for or do in a wilderness emergency. Make sure to always have your ten essential on you, and always prepare adequately for a safe trip. Rescue resources such as helicopters may not always be available due to local weather, terrain and resource limitations. A helicopter is NOT guaranteed, nor always a safe or necessary option.
Stay safe out there!
Tips for Big Hikes for Little Ones
A recent hike with my exuberant little niece made me think of how important it is to get your kids out into nature. Here are a few tips to help you addict your kids to hiking:
Make it fun:
If you want your kids to be excited to go hiking with you again, don’t get so committed to your “destination” that you forget your kid’s priorities. Bugs, acorns, tree roots and pine cones are wonderful discoveries to be examined, not trail side distractions.
Make it educational:
The Wilderness is a perfect open-air classroom
• Carry field guides (or use a phone app) to inform you on trail history and help you identify the plants, rocks, birds and animals your kids encounter along the way.
• Leave No Trace: teach your kids Leave No Trace principles to help them grow into stewards of the outdoors. Find useful and cool LNT reference cards (one with a cartoon Bigfoot!) at http://lnt.org/shop/reference-cards
• Navigation: use a fun activity like Geocaching to introduce bigger kids to the basics of map & compass, and GPS.
Make it safe:
Dress your child in bright, easy to spot colors, make sure they carry a whistle on a lanyard (teach them to stay in place and blow it if separated) and have easy access to a headlamp.
Introduce little legs to hiking with extended walks (up to 2 hours) in a natural setting near home. The earlier in life your kids become comfortable long walks (as early as 3), the more likely they will enjoy hiking later.
Get them Involved:
Make trip planning a family affair. Ask your kids for ideas of things they’d like to see or do at your destination (or along the way). Listen to them.
Share (a little of) the weight: Kids like to feel a degree of independence. Give your kids a small pack and let them carry a few lightweight items like their favorite snacks, water, trail-side treasures, and rain gear. You can still carry the weight for your littlest kids, so they don’t get worn out and frustrated.
Bring a friend: Having a good friend or special stuffed animal to share the trail discoveries with can make a world of difference. For littler ones, make sure to tuck their teddy bear in their pack (with his head sticking out for a better view) to share in their adventures.
Be prepared : As an adult, it is your job to think ahead and always carry the “Ten Essentials” (google it!). Make sure you have enough food, water and comfortable, weather appropriate clothing for you and your kids.
Be watchful: If you have 2+ adults in your party, keep one in the lead and one following behind to serve as the “sweep”, with kids securely in the middle.
Don’t forget to have fun!
Remember- you have long legs, an adult timeframe and adult priorities- go at a kid’s pace and respect their interests. Relax, learn to marvel at the natural world with your child’s fresh eyes, and your hike will be a hit with many encore performances!
At first I can’t figure out why I’m awake.
Out of reflex I reach over to the bedstand and grab my phone to check the time. Staring through heavy eyes at the glowing face, I realize its ringing. It’s my partner, Lee; “They need a team for a rescue hoist. Can you jump in with me as backup?”
I flick up on the light switch, blink to adjust my eyes, and stride towards the gear closet. I drag out my Osprey pack and pull open the top to review the contents. Helmet, Harness, extra clothes, food and water for the subject, overnight supplies for me… Check! Even though the hoist will probably go quickly, you never know… as a general rule we “pack for 2 hrs or 2 days”.
Inside of 15 minutes I’m jumping into the cavernous cab of Lee’s Dodge Ram. We bomb our way halfway down the mountain to the Keenwild Helipad. Lee parks, I swing my hefty pack out of the truck bed after him, then we make our way onto the pitch black landing pad. A coyote howls, then fades into silence. Far out in the distance I can see Star-9′s lights approaching, intermittently piercing the dark night sky. We crouch down to the side of the Landing Zone and watch the skids cruise above our heads. Even on the smooth pavement the rotor wash from the landing pelts me with enough debris to make me glad I am wearing my safety goggles.
With a quick wave, the TFO motions to us to approach the helicopter. We duck down at the waist, carrying our packs down low in our hands, and move forward. Up close I smile to see the familiar faces of pilot Mike Calhoun and TFO Eric Hannum. After a quick but warm exchange of handshakes and nods, we climb up into our seats and buckle up. In what seems like only a few seconds, the ground sways away beneath us, and we are cruising towards the High country. I pull on on my headset and swing down the mouthpiece. We cross check communications, “good to go”.
The dark desert floor wraps out below us to the north east, cities an oasis of bright lights twinkling in the black of night. Bright flashes of lightning flash threateningly far out over the Mojave. “There’s something brewing out there” says Eric, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come our way “. I cast a glance in the same direction and silently echo the same sentiment in my head.
I realize I have been gripping my pack since we took off and let it go, settling back into my seat. It’s an unexpectedly warm night. I’m usually colder in the cockpit but tonight I have to peel my jacket off within minutes of getting in.
“What have we got?” Asks Lee, voice echoing sharp and tinny in the headset. Eric turns toward us, “Injured hiker, missed the tram down. The reporting party is her boyfriend, says she hurt her ankle on the way back down to the tram. We have a general idea of her location, but we’ll need to pinpoint it first before we can decide how to insert you.”
Mike circles the helicopter around the high mountain valleys, while we search the slopes for any sign of light, any sign of our subject. The thup.. thup..thup of the rotors echoes across the valleys, breaking into the silence of the night and probably waking up a few annoyed backpackers along the way.
After about 15 minutes we see it, a faint light shining up from far below. “There we go. Light ahead at 9 o’clock.” From the color and strength it looks like it may be the face of a cell phone. Most people don’t know that we can see cell phone light at night from miles away given the right conditions. Lee pulls out a local topo map and I trace my finger over the area, starting to plan our hiking approach.
Mike and Eric are doing the same for the helicopter. “We can put it down nearby. Long Valley meadow looks good,” says Mike. “Sounds good to us!” I chime in and Lee gives a quick nod and a thumbs up. It’s not too far from the subject. We can hike in quickly as the hasty team to assess her condition. Our air crew can insert further rescuers and equipment as needed afterwards.
I lean forward and hook my fingers through the top handle of my pack in anticipation. Now that we have visual, I’m eager to get out on trail. “Hold up there. We can’t land yet.” Pilot Mike says.
When dealing with helicopters, there are a lot of factors to consider. The warmth of the night has altered the air density, making it unexpectedly thin for our purposes. Wisely preparing for a potentially longer aerial search, the crew filled the fuel tank. On a colder night this weight would not be a problem, but tonight, adding in the weight of a subject and multiple rescuers… If we land, we might not have enough power to take off in the short clearance offered by the mountain meadow. Despite dramatically staged movie portrayals, a straight up-and-down take off is very difficult, potentially dangerous, and consumes huge amounts of power.
“We need to fly around and burn more fuel to get the weight down”, states Mike. We circle the rim of the mountain valley several more times. It’s absolutely stunning and for a moment I gaze down and let myself relax into the view. Off to the North I can still see flashes of lightning illuminating the desert floor. I feel my brow furrow. The storm seems a lot closer. I’m starting to get a little nervous that it might show up before we can finish.
HITTING THE TRAIL
Another 25 minutes and things are looking good. We’ve burned enough fuel and it’s time to land. As we come into the meadow, tall grasses lie down flat in wide waves in front of us. The helicopter draws a circle of light out directly below us fading into the jagged black silhouettes of pine trees. Eric, our TFO, cracks open the door and leans out for a better view. It’s his job to make sure that the helicopter is safe, that we have enough clearance around us and that no major debris are poised to be sucked up into our rotor. Mountain landings are risky business.
Within moments we are down. Time to move out. Eric opens the door all the way and motions for us. I unclip my seatbelt, I grab my pack and step out into the dark.
After a quick radio check with Eric to make sure we can keep up communications with our air crew, we head out onto the trail. Within minutes, Lee spots the reporting party wandering along the trail. We gather information from him about our subject’s whereabouts and condition. He’s well off and in decent shape and we request that he return to the relative shelter of the tram station to remain safe until contacted.
Lee heads off first down the trail, long strides carrying him along quickly. I crank my own short legs into gear and manage to haul him back in. As we reach the base of the switchbacks I interject between strides; “Hold up, time for a call out!” We pause and I turn my shoulders to face upslope. “One… two…three…” I suck in a deep breath, spreading my ribs wide, and we bellow out “Helloooo!” in unison. My ears are met with silence for a few seconds, then a faint cry echoes in from far upslope. Great! I let my breath out, only then realizing that I was holding it. Lee radios in “Star 9, we have voice contact, proceeding to the subject“. A few minutes of intense hiking later, I see a faint light ahead and my heart lifts further.
“Hello, we’re from Search and Rescue, we’re here to help”. Our subject, Teresa, is happy to see us. She is sitting in the middle of a switchback on the trail, obviously exhausted, but smiling a greeting back at us. Despite her smile, it’s obvious she has not had a fun night.
After a quick scene safety assessment, I settle down by her on the dusty trail. “Are you hurt? What happened?” Careful questioning gives us a good outline of her backstory and method of injury. After a long and exhausting hike attempting to keep up with her friend, (probably excessive for her level of conditioning) she reports having slipped, twisting her ankle and bumping her hip, luckily with no head, neck or back involvement.
After her friend left to get help, she did her best to try and self-evacuate, sliding and dragging herself downhill for an extended distance until her strength gave out. She finally found a relatively soft spot on the trail to hunker down and await rescue. She has been sitting alone in the middle of the dark trail for hours.
She’s a friendly, tough lady, a nurse, and makes no complaint as we examine her. We gather necessary information. A thorough head to toe reveals some scrapes and bruises, in addition to a painfully sprained, potentially broken ankle. LOC, SAMPLE and quick set of vitals shows her to be in generally good condition, although we will keep track to make sure she maintains a positive trend. As soon as we examine her foot, it’s quickly obvious that our subject will not be walking anywhere tonight. Lee keys the radio: “Star-9, we will need a litter, a wheel and additional rescuers to help with transport.”
I pull out my first aid kit. Time to prep our brave lady for transport. One SAM splint, and plenty of coband and TLC later and we have a stable injury. I make sure to leave access so that we can continue to check her distal pulse and make sure she is getting circulation. Hopefully we will have her out of here in just a few minutes, after the rest of the team arrives with the litter, but it’s always better to prepare for the long term if possible.
Now that we’ve dealt with the most pressing safety issues, it’s time to further address patient comfort. Teresa has been sitting still for a long time on the cold ground. Lee pads her sitting area and wraps her up our spare sleeping bags and down jackets. I make sure she has enough to eat and drink. Getting her insulated, rehydrated and fed will fuel her body and help keep her warm.
“Are we good to go?” Lee asks. “Good to go“. I reply, giving our subject an encouraging smile.
Lee walks off to the side and calls in: “Star-9, Team One. We’re ready for transport. Where are we with the litter and additional rescuers?”
The radio crackles; “Team One, this is Star-9. Bad news. We have the litter, and rescuers are standing by, but the storm is almost here.” Oh heck. I almost forgot about the storm.
Star-9 isn’t exaggerating-the storm has moved in unbelievably quickly. Seconds later, the first burst of lightning streaks across the sky and thunder booms close behind. The sky opens up in a pelting rain. The first raindrops splash cold onto my scalp.
“Team One, we can’t pull you out! Are you and subject prepared to overnight?”
Lee glances at me and I nod.
“Star-9, we are good, we repeat, good to overnight, request additional rescuers and resources when available.”
With our last radio contact I put in a request that the Sheriff’s Department let my school know that I won’t be in to teach class in the morning. At least I have a unique excuse: left behind on a mountain helicopter rescue is something they probably haven’t heard before!
The helicopter peels off. We are alone on the mountaintop. Without the helicopter we have no outside radio contact. We’ll just have to wait until the storm breaks or the tram opens up in the morning to allow new resources.
We ramp down from our evacuation efforts, and start to prep for a long, wet, and cold night. Lee pulls out a tarp and I wedge several logs up against a deadfall tree to form a lean-to shelter in place above Teresa. Luckily, within a few minutes the torrential downpour has passed. Unfortunately, the cloud cover is still far too thick for a helicopter to penetrate.
We make sure Teresa is warm and as comfortable as possible in the circumstances, check distals and vitals again, then bed down nearby for an uneasy rest. I set my alarm to repeat every hour, so we can check in regularly on our subject. High winds moan through the trees as we settle down for an uncomfortable night.
I meet first light with the reassuring weight of my rescue pack on my back. Lee and I have decided that I will head out to the tram to re-establish contact with the Sheriff’s Department and try to wrangle up some reinforcements. I leave my first aid supplies, spare sleeping bag and clothing behind to help take care of our subject.
On the way back I swing by the Ranger Station. Although it is officially closed and unmanned, I notice that there is a CCC crew camped just outside. Perfect! With some aggressive pounding and loud voice I quickly manage to wake them up. A quick explanation of the situation gets them in motion. In a few minutes they have pulled a litter and wheel from the station (which they conveniently have the keys to) and we now have several strong young guys to help us transport our subject. That’s what I call using the resources at hand!
I radio Lee with the good news: “I’ve got a gift for you on the way up. Litter, Wheel and four strapping, eager young guys”. Lee is more than happy hear this: “Copy that!”
I send the guys back up the trail to Lee and Teresa and continue on my way to the tram.
The tram employees have just arrived on the first car. Once informed of the situation, they are eager to help. Sharon from DSSAR has just arrived at the base of the tram. I brief her and the deputy on scene, and we coordinate to bring up more rescuers and gear with the first car.
Together RMRU and DSSAR escort the subject back down to the tram and to safety. Our brave subject has kept a good attitude through her entire ordeal and soon will be heading home after a quick check out at the hospital!
As an extra surprise, the Riverside Sheriff Department has not only informed my School that I would be late, they also provided an officer to drive me back to my side of the mountain. I arrive in class only 5 minutes late, and with a great story to share with my kids.