Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
(Editor’s note from Lou: Years ago, I worked with mountain rescue folks to write up this simple guide to effectively handling a rescue situation when you’re in the victim party. It was published in my guidebooks. Time for a re-work and blog publish. This guide is supposed to be basic, for newbies or those needing a refresher. Brief and to the point. Suggestions to make it better? Leave comments.)
The mountains are a dangerous place for us fragile humans. No matter how careful we are, human error or “acts of God” can strike.
Thus, you must be prepared to handle an emergency. To do so, you should be skilled in first aid or emergency medicine. Often, you’ll need to move an accident victim to a safe bivouac or helicopter landing area. If you’re a snow climber or skier, you should know how to move an injured person on snow. Gain these skills by taking courses and studying books. Practice. These techniques look easy on paper, but are difficult in the field.
Each party should carry a few first aid supplies such as duct tape and athletic tape, a large elastic bandage, a few sterile compresses, and comfort items such as pain killers and blister dressings. You don’t need a huge elaborate first aid kit unless you’re on a multi-day expedition. What’s most important is your knowledge, judgment — and ultimately your course of action.
A well-planned and expedient rescue begins in the field with the victim and companions. In the case of an avalanche burial or severe medical emergency, self rescue and “self treatment” are the only ways you have of saving an accident victim’s life. If you carry out the initial rescue properly, the mountain rescue team can follow through efficiently.
In first-world countries and often in third-world, most people with serious medical problems are evacuated by helicopter. Now and then, a rescue group will use horses, snowmobiles, a human carried litter, or a ski patrol sled. Whatever method is used, your sequence of action should look like this:
1. Before you leave for a ski trip or climb, be sure someone in civilization knows of your route and schedule. This person should (without hesitation) notify authorities if you are overdue. Yes, we now have things such as satellite emergency notification units, and sometimes a cell phone will work. But you can’t count on those items 100 percent. Even if you do contact authorities proceed as if a rescue is hours (or sometimes days) away. Unless you’re very near civilization or available helicopter (in good weather), you cannot count on rescuers appearing when things go wrong. You must take other steps.
2. Your first step is to do the proper first aid, or in the case of an avalanche burial, extrication then first aid. After that move the person to a safe location if necessary.
3. If you decide you need a rescue and can not make contact electronically, send someone out for help. If there are only two of you, be sure your companion is safe and comfortable before you leave. His location should be well marked. If you think it through, it is obvious that a group of three is much better in the case of an accident than a group of two.
Backcountry communication has become much easier. Virtual standard in North America is a SPOT satellite emergency comm device, but the SPOT limit to one-way communication can cause a great deal of confusion and possibly delay a critical rescue while authorities delay for assessment. Instead of SPOT, plenty of two-way options are now available. For example, Delorme In-Reach (though requiring a paired device such as a smartphone) can be effective. Best is a cell phone if in range, or a satellite phone if not.
4. People who go for help should have a map clearly marked with the location of the victim. A description of the accident and injuries, or illness, should be written on the back of the map. They should travel with care and reserve enough energy for facile communication once they get to civilization. They might need to fly back in and help locate the victim. In most parts of the U.S., to notify the authorities call 911 or call the sheriff of the county where the victim is. Other countries have different emergency notification numbers and systems. Know before you go.
5. If authorities decide you need a rescue, they may authorize a helicopter. Choppers are subject to the whims of weather and landing sites, so you might have a wait if the weather is shaky. Thus, it’s good to pick a bivouac area as close as you can to the most likely landing site, and be ready for delay. The best landing site should be clear and level — a rule of thumb for landing site size is 200 by 200 feet. Some ships require more room, and some can squeeze into a smaller area. In the case of poor landing options, the trend is to use a sling and cable and not to land the craft. In this event, or in a situation with fall potential, the victim should be wearing a climbing harness if possible.
6. You should make an effort to be close to likely landing sites, but the pilot will select his own. So, put your energy into a survivable and well marked location for your wait. Marking can be hard. On the side of a mountain, your only choice might be waving, or flashing a light if it’s dusk or night. If waving is your only choice, try to wear clothing that contrasts with your surroundings. If you have snow to work with, stamp out a large figure. An SOS, X, or an arrow pointing to your exact location will do fine. If you’re in timber, a smoky fire can help by acting as a signal and showing wind direction. But do not depend on this alone, do not build a fire in the middle of a possible landing site, and be aware of wildfire potential!
While you can use brightly colored gear to show your location, anchor such gear to withstand the hurricane winds of helicopter rotors. Objects blown into the rotors can cause a major mishap. If you’re on flat ground, but you haven’t had time to construct good markers, you’ll have to signal the aircraft with your body. To do so, wear bright clothing, lay down in an open area, and wave your arms. It’s surprisingly hard to spot a person from the air.
7. After a helicopter lands, do not run to the ship in your joy. Wait for the rotors to stop, or for the pilot to gesture to you. Before approaching an operating copter, secure all your loose clothing, and carry skis at hip level horizontal to the ground. When you’re around this kind of machinery think before you act. A simple mistake can easily compound an already serious rescue. If the pilot chooses not to land but rather do a cable extrication, wait for instructions from pilot or lowered rescue personal. Do not reach out and grab or clip lowered personal unless requested. No fast or impulsive moves, think before you act.
Check out this article about the first ever helicopter rescue, 1945.