My Rescue in the
Late summer backpacking in a Southwest Washington national forest ends in my terrifying rescue. Includes an interview on trail safety with mountain rescuer Lauren Dawkins.
’m at a trailhead on the first of two late summer forays into southwestern Washington’s Gifford-Pinchot National Forest, strapping on my pack.
I finally gave in to the idea of backpacking with lightweight trail runners. “But I’m using trekking poles,” I explain, “they keep me stable and I feel more balanced, especially when my pack feels heavy.”
“You’re really backpacking in those?” Eric asks, looking at my orange trail running shoes. Both he and Tim are wearing backpacking boots, the heavy ones with full ankle support.
“I kept having trouble with boots,” I explain. “Black and blue toenails for months.”
As we start walking on the trail, I can see how heavy Eric and Tim have packed their packs: forty-seven pounds for Tim and fifty-two for Eric.
Those heavyweight packs haunt me, as I have spent the last twenty years fumbling with a heavy camera, fussing over daypack weight. I remember twenty years ago, the misery of trying to cram thirty-five pounds of large-format equipment and camping gear into an old external-frame pack, all the thoroughly unnecessary gear jingling about loosely and heavily. I remember sitting down exhausted on desert rock, without even sleeping overnight away from my car, my nose bleeding, and me saying to myself — never again!
These days, for the two weeks before a backpacking trip, I will obsess over the contents of my pack: packing, repacking, and each time weighing the total pack weight, as I slowly and deliberately reduce.
Into the Goat Rock Wilderness
As we enter the lower elevations of the Goat Rock Wilderness, I am reminded that there is a sameness to the forests of the Pacific Northwest that evokes deja vu. In the first few miles up the trail, I realize I could be on any of a dozen similar trails I know from Oregon.
Soon, Tim and Eric and their heavy packs will outpace me. I am a slow walker; deliberate, poking each trekking pole in the ground with each step.
I walk slow, perhaps, because I enjoy walking. Eleven months ago, I decided to walk five miles a day without missing a day. The most difficult days have been travel days, when I find myself pacing up and down the hotel hallway to count up mileage. But on the days between, the regular days, those walks have become the best moments of my day. I count birds, I read the news, I deliberate over work tasks, I talk to the dog walkers, I take calls, and I listen to sets and sets of live music.
Backpacking days, though, are the one day I don’t need to check my mileage.
he shade of the forest disappears as we ascend into a subalpine wilderness, where smaller pines thrive only in island-like groves.
As we catch a view of Mount Adams due south, Eric recounts his dad’s harrowing winter rescue on the top of the mountain. It reminds me how lucky we are to have Eric, who grew up actively under the wings of an experienced mountaineer, in our backpacking trio.
We set up camp in a small, flat grove, looking out over sloped mountain meadows. Thick with lupine, indian paintbrush and the white plumes of bear-grass, creating a sort of heaven for an assortment of butterflies — fritillaries, coppers and blues.
We each have our own way of making dinner. Mine is an exercise in keeping pack weight down: two freeze-dried meal packages and a couple shots of rum. The other two unravel their packs: fresh eggs, herbs, sausages, tomatoes, crackers, red wine.
Smelling the pan frying and the red wine pouring, I can’t help but wonder if maybe packing this ultralight was overdoing it?
As we eat dinner, a fog moves into the valley below us, illuminated by sunset. Groves of trees stick out from the fog, casting purplish shadows across the illuminated fog.
I show Tim and Eric my ultralight sleeping pad, a thing of modern engineering marvel. It weighs about as much as an apple, and, rolled up, fits in my palm.
We see headlamps moving up in the peaks above; these are thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. I admire them each summer for their small, light packs and the effortless way they move through the wilderness. But to see them crossing mountains under the stars is a reminder that we can shed the restrictions and fears we learn at home.
I lay that ultralight sleeping pad down and hope for sleep. But my modern marvel squeaks loudly with each movement I make; it’s the sound of balloons rubbing up against each other over a loudspeaker. I know Tim and Eric can hear it crooning under my weight from their nearby tents.
Old Snowy Peak
he next morning, we depart Snowgrass Flats for 7,800 foot Old Snowy Peak, which lies just above the high point of the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
Along the way, we reach an overlook from where we can see all of Washington’s big volcanic mountains, rising from an endless layer of clouds. It’s breathtaking. To the north, past the turquoise of snowmelt pools, we can see the long spine of the Pacific Crest Trail — it looks harrowing, like a scene from an exaggerated Peter Jackson scene.
I refuse the final two hundred feet to the peak, leaning into my trekking poles and watching the rocks below for signs of life. American Pikas —threatened Alpine fluffballs---stand sentinel on rocks below, and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches drink from the snowmelt.
We descend Old Snowy Peak, and begin the hike to Sheep Lake, descending through wildflower meadows and rocky alpine groves. On our minds is the prospect of an effortless hike, but a few miles in, we assemble on a rock outcropping and look out over a vast bowl of steep, treeless terrain furnished with thin, late summer waterfalls.
The view from Old Snowy Peak should have trashed any feeling I had that all the Pacific Northwest looks the same, but this basin is singular; like the epicenter of a lost world. It’s all here but the winged monsters and man-eating mushrooms.
Reality sets in when Eric points to the pass we’ll ascend to get to Sheep Lake; it’s a long slog on steep terrain. Nevertheless, with each passing hour after Cispus Basin, we are in a new range, a new valley, featuring completely unique terrain to the one before.
n the early evening, we arrive at Sheep Lake, a smallish lake surrounded by Mountain Hemlocks. With the last hour of sunshine, we dip in the lake and I notice the sandy lakebed is filled with a salamander species I had never seen before - greenish in color, smallish in size. Every once in a while, I’ll see a much larger, stockier salamander. But two species inhabiting the same lake?
No, I would later realize. The smaller salamanders are adults that have retained their juvenile traits, like gills and infantile proportions, far into adulthood. Many salamanders exhibit neoteny; like Mexico’s strange, pale Oxlotl, which never leaves its juvenile state. If your species has two distinct forms, one that thrives in the water and one that thrives on land, you can weather the millennia of climatic extremes.
A deep fog rolls in, casting blues and violets over our camp. I set my tent away from Eric and Tim’s tents, to avoid waking them up with my squeeky (but very ultralight) sleeping pad. Early in the morning, I feel water at my feet. Oh crap, I somehow rolled over my water bladder and squeezed all the water out, which pooled at the base of the tent, drenching my trail runners.
I have no choice but to wake up and find a way to dry them before we depart. I find a beam of morning sun over the lake and hang the shoes on my trekking poles. The prospect of hiking out of the mountains with wet shoes frightens me. I made a critical and careless error, and my second pair of shoes, my camp shoes, are just an ultralight pair of sandals, incapable of acting as backup hikers.
Luckily, the mesh construction of my trail runners made the wetness inconsequential, and at the end of a beautiful backpacking weekend, Eric remarks that for all our terrain and mileage, we only had one small mishap, a pair of wet shoes.
Indian Heaven Trailhead
all came on fast this year, and rain is forecast for our second backpacking trip in the Gifford-Pinchot Wilderness. Our plan is to simply break camp early the morning of our departure and beat the forecasted morning downpour.
Tim and I drive out to the trailhead on a sunny and cool morning. Eric has already ascended up into the Southwestern Washington plateau known as the Indian Heaven Wilderness, and we’ll look for him around the lakes up there.
On the way up, Tim and I talk about the joy of having an easy backpacking weekend. Unlike our Goat Rocks trip, this one has limited mileage. “You can really carry a lot less weight for a one-nighter,” I explain. “And you can get to camp early and just explore the area.”
The trail up to the Indian Heaven Wilderness shows the signs of fall; wafting layers of mist among the trees and layers of fog blanketing the lakes. September rains have scoured the trail with puddles and mud, and the smell of decaying mushrooms ripens the air.
Tim explains how he’s modified his pack since our last trip. “I bought a first-aid kit, and an emergency blanket.” He explains proudly. His pack still looks really heavy.
“I actually ditched my first-aid kit for this trip. It’s so short,” I explain. “But I took some new luxuries and didn’t worry about shaving every ounce of weight this time.”
I am carrying a tenkara rod; a lightweight telescoping pole that is the Japanese equivalent to western flyfishing. Without a reel, a tenkara rod weighs just ounces.
“And you’re going to be making us dinner!” Tim says, joking that I would actually catch trout without having used the rod before.
Without any hard deadline, Tim and I ramble up towards the plateau slowly, picking huckleberries by the handful. The entire trail system is covered in mushrooms. Some are tiny, tall impossible things, orange or yellow in color. The poisonous and psychedelic Amanita muscaria mushrooms are everywhere - bright reds and oranges with white spots. Incredibly, some are a foot wide.
“So, I was in this mushroom identification group,” Tim explains. “But I couldn’t stand it anymore. All the egos.”
“What do you mean?”
“They just get in fights about everything. It was so toxic.”
“I’m in a Slime Mold Identification group. They are pretty mild mannered,” I explain. “But the wildflower identification people can get really angry. Someone new comes in and asks about a garden flower, and the whole place goes nuts.”
Tim has a way of spouting out imaginary bird names when I name a bird I’ve spotted in the distance. “Dunder-headed Peckerhead!” He’ll say. “Big-breasted Sapsucker!”
I tell him that I know five or six other people that do the same thing every time I name birds, but that he had the best fake bird names.
“But real bird names are better than fake ones,” I tell him. “Our own little gray birds, the bushtits!” I say. And continue, “Masked Flowerpiercer. American Woodcock! Red-billed Oxpecker! Horned Screamer! Hottentot Buttonquail!”
Sahalie Lake in the Indian Heaven Wilderness
The Indian Heaven Wilderness is nothing like the other wildernesses in the Gifford-Pinchot. It’s flat, isolated, and its protected forests are pockmarked with meadows and lakes. For all of the northwest’s human history, it had been a premiere hunting and foraging land for diverse tribes for nine thousand years.
In the afternoon, we find Eric’s camp pitched on the small Sahalie Lake; the only campsite on the entire lake. Later, Eric returns to camp. Like us, he had spent hours among huckleberries.
After setting camp, Eric and Tim leave to swim in a nearby lake, and I try my tenkara rod on Sahalie Lake, just to practice the cast, as a flyfishing dayhiker told me there were no fish in this lake.
To my surprise, a fish takes my fly almost immediately, and by the time Tim and Eric return, I have three eight-inch trout, ready for Tim to fillet.
All my regrets about carrying too few luxuries to share with my backpacking buddies on previous trips vanished. Sure, Eric and Tim always shared their fine meals and heavy-to-pack wine with me. Sure, Tim would let me sit in his camp chair. But now, I have provided our sustenance — fresh, beautiful fish.
And that’s not all. To shed my habit of having nothing to share at the campfire, to finally break the binds of my ultralight packing, I had packed a freezer bag and a wooden cheese board. While Eric and Tim prepared the fire, I place grapes, figs, a blue cheese from Rogue River, almonds and Brebirousse d'Argental, my favorite subtle sheepmilk cheese from France. I also place Jamon Serrano and a lovely Breseola - my twin passions in food - on the cheese board.
As I serve the cheese board, I realize it’s getting cold outside, and so I grab my water filter and baselayers and head down to the lake to change and draw up water from the lake. This time, instead of wearing my ultralight sandals, I am using true, stable, comfortable camp shoes; much more appropriate for the cooler weather.
I walk along the hard-packed sand of Sahalie Lake and suddenly find myself on the ground — my foot had broken through the crusty veneer of hard-packed sand into a foot of mud. I stand up and place my left foot on the ground; and instantly know there is something seriously, nightmarishly wrong. It is like there is no foot attached to the leg—just the pain of a meaty stump of flesh.
With my other foot and my hands, I get myself onto the ground and yell out for Tim and Eric, who are joyfully preparing dinner. At first, they don’t comprehend my scream and joke back. I yell again and they come rushing to the lake. They place me between them and hobble me back to camp.
I am laying on the ground at camp, and I make my plea — we need to get out of here as fast as possible, before dark.
Tim throws the three fillets in the fire, then douses it; Tim and Eric are making calculations, and then we go for it. Tim asks me to climb on his back. We make it about twenty feet - unbearable foot pain for me, Tim out of breath.
Let’s try placing me between them, they suggest. We make it, just barely, out of the huckleberry thickets and onto the trail. About 75 feet. “This isn’t going to work,” Tim says. “Yeah,” says Eric. I’m thinking, we hardly even tried. But I’m not thinking straight. We wouldn’t have made it another 75 feet.
They place me back at the center of the camp, between the three tents and the fireplace. In a flurry of short requests, I get Tim to hand me anything I can conceive of needing: 35 advil tablets, glasses, contact solution, contact case, a Clif Bar and a pack of olives. I place everything in the pocket of my midlayer. But within minutes, I’ll forget that this moment of clarity, and will have no recollection of where my emergency supplies went.
We all know that rain is expected tonight, so we’re going to get out of here before that.
Tim and Eric are working together to make sure I’m warm, suggesting I make the move to my tent.
“I just can’t do it,” I say. “I can’t make it over that lip.” The idea of moving myself into my tent is an impossibility. “I need to stay here.”
Tim and Eric start finding layers for me, helping me with a baselayer top, an extra shirt, my jacket.
Tim pulls out his emergency blanket. The one he just bought. “Let’s get this around him first,” he says.
The one layer I refuse is my bottom baselayer—my longjohns —there is no way I would be able to get my foot through them. That means I’ll have to weather this evening’s dropping temperatures until we find a way out of here, before tonight’s rain starts.
Eric and Tim are talking. Tim says. “Eric, I hate to do this to you, but I think you need to be the one to hike out and look for a cell signal as you are the only one that knows that route. I’m going to go in the other direction and look for a doctor.” Tim is referring to the campsites near the larger nearby lake, Blue Lake, where he believes at least two groups are camping.
As Eric prepares to head out, I hear Tim whispering to him. “So, a couple things you need to tell them. There are no external injuries. And, he’s in a state of shock.”
“Eric, Tim...Jane can wait until tomorrow to hear about this,” I say. “It won’t help anyone for my family to know.”
Then, both Tim and Eric are gone, and an overwhelming quiet creeps into camp. In this quiet, my mind races through the past twenty years of walking. How many times was I half a mile away from a road, and made some decision to jump from one rock to the next, or to slide myself through a tight space, all these little movements - safe, slow, deliberate movements, all of which could have produced this same result?
And then, what about Cuba —-the day I walked into the mangroves without water on a hot day, and then stumbled in the uneven accumulated mass of leaves, bunched up on the shoreline? What if what happened here, happened there? What was the difference? In Cuba, I was by myself, and nobody even knew which city I was near. If this happened in Cuba, how would I call for help? And if not in Cuba, what about the many days I slipped out off the road, only a quarter mile or half a mile from civilization?
Then, Tim’s voice. “I have some good news. I didn’t find a doctor, but I found a physical therapist. And, he specializes in feet and ankles.”
Hans, a physical therapist from Portland, leans in, evaluating my ankle, guessing at my injury and whispering words like tibia, fibula, ankle socket and ligaments. He finds a log and scoots it under my ankle, asking Tim about ibuprofen and giving us both advice about what to do when the pain hits. “He’s in shock now,” he explains to Tim. “but once that wears off, the pain is going to set in.”
Tim’s brand new first-aid kit has only a small amount of ibuprofen, and although I have an enormous amount in my pocket, I have no recollection of it. Tim's first-aid kit has more tylenol, and he sets a plan to dole it out to me in increments. “I can give him the maximum dosage until we run out.”
Did I forget to mention that Tim was an army medic in the National Guard?
Hans’ backpacking partner, Tom, comes into camp next. It’s dark now, and he wears a headlamp, and carries a bright yellow emergency beacon. “We can set this thing off,” he says. “Gives them our exact location.”
Tom places the beacon down on the ground, pushing a button on the contraption. Tim would later tell me, "the mood changed after we hit that button, and I credit it for helping you not continue into shock."
Hans and Tom, who are backpacking with Tom's Boyscount Troop, leave our camp, and Tim goes off into the woods to look for firewood. Time passes in the dark, and then a flurry of activity again. Tim, Eric, Hans and Tom are all at camp again. “So, there’s some bad news,” Tim explains. “Jane knows you are injured. So, there’s some good news. There is a rescue team. They’re on their way.”
Eric explains, “I was able to text my wife from about a mile and a half away. She was able to communicate with the Skamania County sheriff, and of course all the wives were talking.”
I lie there on the ground, while the four of them tell stories, possibly under the pretense that I am in shock and not listening. Hans tells the other three a scene from a movie, Alpha, in which the prehistoric protagonist breaks his leg in a deep wilderness, self-splints and hikes out to safety. The survival stories get more and more gruesome.
“Hey guys,” I say. “Can you tell me perverted bird names instead.”
“Boisterous Bushtit!” Tim shouts, changing the subject while tending the fire.
Sometime later, Eric and Tim have news. “So...some bad news. The sheriff was considering taking a Blackhawk helicopter rescue, but it’s too dark. They considered coming in tonight, but the sheriff thinks its too dangerous, and you’re stable enough. We’re going to have to stay overnight.”
Weirdly, I am prepared for it, and after Hans and Tom leave, Eric and Tim make a plan for the next day. Eric will carry his pack to his car early the next morning and Tim will break down the camp. Eric will return to camp, meet Tim and carry my gear down the plateau - a day of backpacking, times three.
“If it starts raining tonight, we can always cut the bottom out of your tent and place it on top of you,” Tim says. Yes, I think, genius.
I know that sleep will not come tonight, and my mind wanders through all of the times in my life I hadn’t prepared for the possibility of an accident. Why did I walk there? Why did I jump across that? Years ago, why did I playfight with my son on top of a log while backpacking with him as a duo? How would either of us have navigated an injury? I race through twenty years of potential accidents.
Into the night, I listen to Tim trodding off into the woods, looking for firewood. Late into the night, he keeps the fire bright. Later he’ll explain how chilling it felt to be in an almost pitch-black forest, looking for firewood, but that he knew the psychological effects of keeping the fire lit.
Tim's fire would also prove key for Eric, whose nighttime hikes to communicate with the sheriff meant his own stumble landed him in a puddle.
Eric would later write, "I remember standing in the pitch-dark meadow for about 30 minutes, responding to a long series of texts. There was a back-and-forth with the sheriff about Erik's condition and position. While that was happening they received the emergency beacon information from the organization that manages those devices, and it matched what I was saying."
Eric would begin to worry about bears or cougars while texting with the sheriff and our wives.
"At one point my headlamp died, causing a moment of panic, but then I realized a few minutes later that I had a phone in my hand, and a battery charger in my pocket with at least two days of charge. So I would have to navigate back to camp using my phone. Along the way I slipped once and landed on my ass in a large mud puddle. Luckily, my phone landed a few feet away on dry land."
"I was worried more about cougars than anything else, because someone had been killed by one up by Mt. Hood a few weeks earlier. I banged my water jug a lot as I hiked to avoid surprises. The biggest wild animal danger is getting accidentally positioned between a mommy bear and her cubs, or encountering a hungry cougar. Usually bears and cougars will avoid people, if they hear us coming. The incident on Mt. Hood involved a nearly starving animal, with some other issues. In the case of Indian Heaven, there was so much food everywhere that it seemed unlikely that anybody would be hungry."
Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Dorian slammed through the Northern Bahamas, where many of my friends live. At this time, we haven’t accounted for all of them yet. While almost all of them lost their homes or livelihoods, a few have yet to surface and remain on missing persons lists. I race through their lives, their plights, imagining their rescues. The perspective gets me through the night.
“Erik,” Eric whispers. “Look at that sunrise.” He’s packing up to descend. As I watch him leave, I wonder if I would have made the same decisions as these two. Could I have kept a clear head if Eric or Tim we’re injured? How lucky have I been to have them with me! How lucky they found Hans and Tom!
Only when daylight appears does a feeling of despair overcome me. Where are the rescuers?
Tim leaves camp to talk with Hans and Tom, and in the silence, four Canada Jays descend from the trees, pecking their way through camp. One teeters along, coming up to me, delirious in my sleeping bag. It appears to calculate whether I’m a threat, and then walks right past me, jumping over my injured leg. This bird, with its cold, black eyes and the way it just looks at me, reminds me just how immobile I am. If I was here alone, could I have been killed by a pack of hungry Canada Jays?
Then, I hear a voice. “Erik! Erik!”
“I’m here! I’m here!”
A woman in a bright red jacket, Lauren Dawkins, appears out of the thickets. “I bet you’re wondering where we’ve been!” Behind her were ten men, dressed in the same red jackets, emblazoned with a patch: Volcano Rescue Team, emerging out of the wilderness.
It is the most thankful moment of my life.
As Lauren splints my leg, a man explains, “We were ready to get you last night, but the Sheriff wouldn’t let us!”
They have a gadget with them. A massive fat tire that they have yet to test in a rescue. This is how I’m going to leave the Indian Heaven Wilderness. In a one-wheeled stretcher.
As I’m hoisted on the basket, the rain begins to let loose, and the team navigates the stretcher three-and-a-half miles down the slopes. The team is excited — their new wheel allows them to speed down the plateau—in constant communication, they share each piece of information about the trail ahead, navigating the mud, the thick branches, the steep parts. Constantly, rescuers are either holding the stretcher or breaking from it; the result is that there are always enough hands. We are at the trailhead in record time. There is a flurry of activity there — the sheriff, the rangers, the ambulance.
By the luck of skilled backpacking buddies, who made all the right decisions, and the luck of finding Hans and Tom, and the Volcano Mountain Rescue team’s perfect rescue, I am able to dream about being on the road again.
But what if just one piece from my successful rescue was missing? What would I do then? And what will you do, when it happens to you?
ow that I am recovering, I catch up with Lauren Dawkins, who found me and splinted my leg, to ask her.i.
Interview with Volcano Rescue Team member Lauren Dawkins
Erik: How does someone decide to become a mountain rescuer? What made you decide to do this?
Lauren: I’ve always loved the outdoors. In my late teens I really got into hiking and backpacking. The first time I heard about the team from one of the members, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. Word of mouth is probably one of the biggest reasons people join our team—I think it’s the stories that do it. Lots of people join after having a friend or family member get involved in search and rescue.
Erik: What is the Volcano Rescue Team all about? I was curious about the morale of the team, which really helped me. Why did it seem everybody was having so much fun?
The team is made up of people from all walks of life, from IT specialists to mechanics, engineers, and paramedics. The two things we all have in common is a love of the outdoors and a desire to help people. Every person is there because they want to be; actively choosing to take time out of their day for missions and devoting extra time to training. I think that really contributes to such a great team atmosphere and, individually, great attitudes. There are definitely times you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, we’ve all experienced some long nights and some pretty lousy conditions, but at the end of the day you know you’re there because this is something you want to be a part of, and the misery is just a small part of the overall mission.
On that particular day, I think the team was in extra good spirits because everything was in place. So often we start a mission with little bits of sometimes conflicting information, where we don’t have contact with the individual.
In your case, we knew your condition was stable and that you had shelter and supplies. The whole team got to prep their packs and get a good nights’ sleep. We try to minimize unnecessary risks such as pack outs in the dark, but sometimes we don’t have enough information to make that call. On this one, we had plenty of people, all the right equipment, and we were fortunate that you were able to relay your exact location—which did not require any rope systems or extra equipment. So as far as missions go, yours was about as smooth and uncomplicated as they go.
Erik: The ER said your team did a great job with my splint...where do you learn that? If mountain rescue teams tend to be volunteer groups, how does the training and experience work?
Lauren: All search and rescue teams are different, and the laws that govern them vary from state to state. In Washington, SAR missions fall to the sheriff’s department, who can then delegate rescues or searches to SAR teams. Volcano Rescue Team’s training for members meets the requirements of the Washington Administrative Code for search teams. In addition, we’re accredited by the Mountain Rescue Association, which means we follow certain training guidelines and have to re-certify in three areas - avalanche rescue, rope rescue, and searches - every few of years to show that we have maintained our proficiency.
We’re made up entirely of volunteers, but we have the privilege of operating under the umbrella of the North Country EMS agency. Because of that, many of our members are also full-time paramedics or EMTs. At the very least, all members are CPR certified, and receive lots of additional, pertinent medical training in first aid techniques.
Every so often, skills from our day jobs come in handy in unexpected ways. I got to apply your splint and I happen to work in an emergency room. I splint people on a daily basis and the medical staff might have been a little surprised that we used the same technique that the ER typically uses for splinting ankle fractures.
Erik: Is it normal to have that many involved in a rescue?
Lauren: Our team has approximately 35 to 40 active members. I would say that most missions range from 5 to 10 people, and since everyone has a day job it’s rare to have over 15 people available on any given day.
Whoever is in charge of a mission will cater the response to fit the need. For pack outs, we try to have at least 8 people minimum, to allow for rescuers to swap out. More are needed depending on the length and difficulty of the terrain. Sometimes a mission is as simple as walking a fatigued hiker down the trail; in this case we might be able to send in a team of two. Rope rescues require a lot of additional people for building systems and man-power for hauling. Some searches span days, and may eventually involve the entire team, working in shifts.
Erik: The fat tire on the stretcher? It seemed like the team was excited for this new technology. Was that responsible for our quick descent?
Lauren: Yes! You had the unfortunate privilege of being our very first patient to ride in the basket with our new wheel. Advances in technology are constantly impacting how we do things.
At its best, our members are regularly able to use GPS waypoints and cell phones to talk someone off the mountain after pinpointing their location and verbally describing landmarks to help the person find their way to a road. We commonly fly injured people out of remote areas using a helicopter.
At its worst, it’s a good out fashioned pack out. Weather, terrain, and the extent of someone’s’ injuries all dictate how we can get to someone, and how we get them out. Extrication via stretcher and a wheel is probably about as simple—yet difficult—as it gets, and yet in many situations it’s the only way.
We were all excited because in the past year we’ve upgraded our patient basket to a lighter, titanium stretcher that weighs far less and comes apart in two pieces for easier packing. The wheel we used is enormous and heavy, and there’s no easy way to carry it. Recently one of our team members bought and donated an upgraded version of this wheel; it’s lighter, smaller, and has its own brake system. Another member purchased the adjustable handles. These may seem like minor adjustments, but after you’ve spent a few hours on the basket, trust me, they’re a really big deal! This was our first time using them and everybody was pretty excited. This particular equipment will help the ease and safety of our descents, and will also help us access our patients faster. Anything that can decrease fatigue and risk of injury for rescuers is a step in the right direction.
Erik: What if there is no rescue team? And I think this is the most important question, because I have spent 20 years walking by myself a half mile from the car, but in somewhat inaccessible areas, and often without telling anyone where I am. How should someone prepare for walking solo in the backcountry? Emergency devices like the Spot or Garmin?
Lauren: A lot of accidents can be prevented, and a lot can’t. People break their ankles from glissading down dangerous slopes, but also by just taking a bad step. There are always going to be risks associated with going into the backcountry. The main thing you can do is reduce risks, and prevent some of the ones associated with human error and poor decision making. Pay attention, know your limits, and know your gear.
Communication is an important part of the picture. Cell phones are an amazing tool, and while many of our missions begin with 911 calls made from cell phones, but they can’t be relied on in the backcountry. There are lots of devices available for both navigation and emergency messaging that use satellites. Satellite Emergency Notification Devices and Personal Locator Beacons are two types of emergency locators. Some only transmit SOS signals, while others can transmit and receive detailed messages, some of these devices require monthly subscriptions to transmit, and some are free to use.
If you invest in one of these tools, the important thing is that you know how your device works and what its limitations are. While these devices have the potential to save lives by continuing to increase our communication abilities, no piece of gear is one-hundred percent reliable, and they can’t replace training and practicing good judgment.
Erik: What should everybody carry with them into the wilderness? Food, water, rain protection, warm backup layers?
Lauren: The best place to start is with the ten essentials. It’s always going to go something like this: a way to navigate, first aid kit, emergency shelter, light source, knife or similar tool, food and water, extra clothing, fire starter, and sun protection.
This is really just the start, and will need to be added to and personalized for your own unique needs, the type of terrain you’re going into, the time of year, and many other factors.
The most important thing really, is to know how to use your gear. A GPS you haven’t learned to use will be of little use. A water purification system you didn’t practice with may prove difficult. A compass is always recommended, but there’s really no point in carrying it unless you know how to use it. A little time spent learning your tools is just as essential as having them with you.
Something that isn’t listed is having knowledge about the area you’re going to. In this day and age, there’s no reason not to do some pre-trip research. Look at topographical maps of the area and get a general idea of what’s around you such as major landmarks, roads, or closest towns. Find a trip report, there may be hazards unique to the area. Someone has probably been there before you and they just might have something important to share. This research may be one of your best tools, since knowledge can’t get lost or broken.
Erik: What information should hikers leave behind? I told my wife I was backpacking in Washington, and my hiking buddy Tim left a chalkboard message that we were in the Indian Heaven Wilderness. Perhaps more details?
Leaving a detailed trip plan and timeline with a trusted person...one who will notice if you’re not back on time...is one of the best things you can do. Include the specific names of trailheads, peaks, or other areas you’re going to, how long you’ll be at each one, and any side trips or back up plans you may have. When possible, leave traces of your presence by signing trail logs. If your plans change, try to notify someone.
Really, what you’re doing is leaving “breadcrumbs” for people to follow if something bad happens. It’s not exactly what you think of when you go out seeking solitude, but it could save your life.
Since joining the team, I definitely think differently when I go out into the woods alone. Anymore, I can’t go out without considering who knows where I’m going, and how long it could take someone to access me.
I broke my ankle socket on both sides, had a clean break on my tibia, broke my fibula and damaged ligaments. Like with my rescue, I am grateful to have been operated on by the best. Three months after the accident, I am walking two miles a day without the support of an ankle boot. Slowly. Per a suggestion from Matt of Expert Vagabond, I am including an X-Ray from a month after my injury. Coincidentally, on the night of my injury, I thought about Matt and the times that unexpected news challenges how we write about our travels, and I recalled the story of fellow travel writer Hank Leukart, who was rescued by helicopter after breaking his leg in New Zealand. Like with me, a Spot device aided in his rescue.