Avoid the Need for Rescue this Winter

As ski and snowboard season kicks off around the country, its time more than ever to be smart and be safe in the mountains

Teton County Search and Rescue Winter 2019 Report | Unofficial Networks

The start of ski and snowboard season is always a good time to review mountain safety.  This year is no exception.  In fact, it’s probably more important now than ever due to the pandemic for several reasons.

The first reason is that you need to be able to keep yourself and your group safe so you can live to ski or ride another day.  Second, due to pent-up demand and restrictions at resorts, expect an influx of skiers and snowboarders in the backcountry this year.  Finally, now is not the time to put rescuers in harms way or stress medical resources and first responders already stressed by the pandemic.

The summer of 2020 saw an explosion of outdoor recreation around the country.  Trial heads were packed.  Campsites were booked.  People it seemed turned to the outdoors to recreate through the pandemic.  Hiking, climbing, biking, and camping appealed to many as safe activities.  This was compounded by the fact that many other recreation and travel opportunities were not available.  Along with more people headed into the backcountry, especially some without training or experience, comes more incidents and rescues.

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Limited statistics and anecdotal accounts indicate that the pandemic did create an uptick in backcountry rescues over the summer of 2020.  British Columbia recorded 333 rescues in July along, the highest in a single month ever.  Closer to home, King County Search and Rescue Association reported 191 rescues by October 2020.  In all of 2019 they had only responded to 198. 

Preseason sales of backcountry ski and snowboard gear seem to indicate that many have plans to venture out into the snowy backcountry this winter.  If these trends hold, the winter of 2020-2021 will likely be one marked by snowy rescues.

Another compounding factor that complicates rescues this year, is that many search and rescue groups have not been able to train in person as a group as they could normally have had it not been for the pandemic.  Now, even assembling for a rescue is more complicated.

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Traveling and recreating in the winter can be a very different experience than exploring the same terrain in the summer.  Backcountry snow travel has its own unique set of risks.  Exposure and cold create obvious risks that can be life threatening.  Navigation can be more challenging as trails, cairns and other markers can be obscured. 

Often, days are shorter and darker and storms can quickly reduce visibility to near zero.  Finally, the risk of avalanches is real and can be deadly. To safely travel and recreate in the backcountry requires awareness of these risks, an understanding of how to address them safely and the proper equipment.

The Utah Avalanche Association has partnered with other organizations to create a website devoted to safe winter recreation.  The site, (Know Before You Go) can be found here:

Know Before You Go has great resources to help you prepare for winter and snow recreation – and to do it safely.

Likewise, the Northwest Avalanche Center here in Washington has some great educational resources and links as well as the latest weather and snow forecasts:

Avoiding Rescue: The Approach

Know Before You Go offers a pretty common sense approach to safety built on 5 steps:

  1. Get the Gear.  Proper gear is essential.  Avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel are essential.  Also, don’t forget about the basic essentials of backcountry travel such as proper clothing, extra layers, fire, shelter, food, water, knife, light (headlamp), navigation (map and compass).  Consider also a PLB such as Spot Tracker or Inreach as well as a portable GPS.  I also like to use two-way radios in the backcountry to communicate with my group.  Don’t count on your phone alone for navigation and communication.  Finally, none of this gear is helpful if you don’t know how to use it proficiently.
  2. Get the Training.  Learn how to safely travel in snow.  Learn about avalanche safety.  Take an avalanche awareness class.  Learn first aid.  Learn navigation and basic survival.
  3. Get the Forecast.  Weather and conditions change fast in the mountains and even faster in the winter.  Read and understand both weather forecasts and avalanche forecasts for your area. If the conditions don’t look safe, save the adventure for another day.
  4. Get the Picture.  Be aware of the conditions around you.  Know where others are located.  What the snow conditions and pay attention to changes.
  5. Get out of Harms Way.  Learn where its generally safe to travel and where isn’t.  Avoid avalanche hazards such as slopes of 29 degrees, cornices, terrain traps.  Travel to minimize risk to others in your group.

Following these steps will take some know-how and practice and preparation, but that effort could save your life or that life of someone in your group.  This winter, make learning part of the adventure and experience.

Some great resources for winter reading include:

  • Snow Travel: Skills for Climbing, Hiking and Moving Over Snow by Mike Zawaski
  • Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard by Jill Fredston, Doug Fesler, Karl Birkeland, and Doug Chabor.
  • Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper
  • Winter in the Wilderness by Jon Ulrich

This winter by staying safe in the mountains you could avoid becoming a victim and prevent having to put already stretched-thin first responders in harms way.

From our team here at Epic Law: Have fun out there, and be safe!


For more reading on this topic, check out this great article published in High Country News: