Emergency Procedure for Backcountry Skiers and Climbers

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | June 19, 2012      

(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.)

French rescue helicopter picking up a skier on the Grand Montets.

French rescue helicopter picking up a skier on the Grands Montets, Chamonix.

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.


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11 Responses to “Emergency Procedure for Backcountry Skiers and Climbers”

  1. Caleb Wray June 19th, 2012 12:21 pm

    The Euro rescue plan is so much simpler. 2 cigarettes and a cell phone. 1 cigarette for you and 1 for your partner while you wait for the helicopter you just called. Oui Oui.

  2. Maki June 19th, 2012 1:39 pm

    Caleb, Euro is a currency. You Dollars never learn.

    Anyway, the “wave your arms” part is good to attract attention in bad visibility, but once the pilot notices you, you have to stand still with open arms (like a “Y”), with the wind at your back and face to the helicopter, so that you act as a reference point for the pilot. You bend down only when the heli is close to the ground. It’s mandatory that you have no loose clothing or gear in any phase. Never approach the back rotor and acces the heli only from the sides. If you don’t need help but the copter points erroneously to you, keep the arms in diagonal (like a “N”). That’s the standard procedure in Europe.

  3. Lou June 19th, 2012 3:40 pm

    Maki, a long time before the Euro currency, the term Euro was used as short for European. Recently, it sounds like the term Euro might continue long after your currency is gone (grin). Sorry about that. Reality strikes. You can call me a “Doll” but if you want something more equivalent of “Euro” you can call us Norte Americanos “‘Canos.” (grin).

  4. Caleb Wray June 19th, 2012 7:07 pm

    Good fun…It’s always a good time to poke fun at those that you respect. The “Euro’s” do have their mountain rescue and access dialed compared to us dollars. No offense intended.

  5. Pablo Nogue June 25th, 2012 4:42 am

    Lou, but Canadians and Mexicans are also “Canos”…

    As Spanish I feel comfortable called as Euro, I like it.

  6. Lou June 25th, 2012 8:28 am

    The only time I didn’t like being called a gringo was when it was used in a sentence that included “empty your wallet.” Cano is ok too, and a Euro is a Euro. Lou

  7. Jack June 25th, 2012 9:46 am

    I like the article. Here are some possible additions: first priority is to ensure that the other members of the party are secure, then secure the injured person. The emotional impulse to jump in and rescue someone is very powerful, but a second accident makes the whole situation much worse.

    I would also add something to capture the adage: “Wilderness medicine is good enough medicine”, i.e. victim support is the priority.

    The article’s emphasis on thinking is really good. Most serious incidents are the result of a cascade of events.


  8. GT June 27th, 2012 10:16 am

    From my experience: using your headlamp (during the day) will greatly assist the helicopter crew in finding your location. Turn it on and look at the chopper.

  9. Maki June 27th, 2012 3:39 pm

    “Cano” sounds bad in Italy, too much similar to “cane” (dog). But I was just pulling Lou’s leg, the EU/Euro/European thing was already raised before. 🙂

    As for the rescue service in Europe, the only time I’ve seen it in action it took 5 minutes from the phone call to seeing the helicopter. We had just the time to put away the gear that could fly around and it was there. It was a lucky combination of perfect weather, working cell phone, and available helicopter, but still impressive. I can’t compare with US, but I think that the Alps are much more populated than american mountains and it surely helps.

  10. Dave Erskine November 1st, 2012 9:36 am

    Has anybody done a survey on how to turn beacons off? Subject came up while practicing multiple victim rescues. When you dig up a victim you wan to turn his beacon off, but it’s not obvious how to do that.

  11. rob September 17th, 2013 3:16 am

    as a euro, and ex forces member who has been involved in a number of rescues.

    I think this is an excellent article for pointers, though I would add,

    don’t rely on a helicopter extraction, as they will only be used when there is time, accessibility or life constraints. I have carried more people down from the mountains than I have loaded into helicopters.

    so be prepared before taking to the hill. a rope, is a mainstay of improvised stretcher’s and an a4 day glow orange panel far superior for indicating location than a head torch in daylight.

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