In January of 2023, Routt County Search and Rescue (RCSAR) spent 19 hours rescuing seven stranded snowmobilers who called for help after their snowmobiles got stuck. Deep snow, their remote location and extreme temperatures made it one of the most physically difficult missions RCSAR had seen in many years, according to their president, and the rescue might not have been accomplished that night without the assistance of a local volunteer groomer from Routt Powder Riders.
Why would volunteer search and rescue members endure such a difficult response to help snowmobilers who were not lost, not injured, and merely had snowmobiles stuck in the snow? Because the subjects were not prepared to spend the night, and RCSAR feared some might not survive if they delayed the rescue until morning.
Backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) teams across Colorado, since the 70’s, have strongly advised people to carry the 10 essentials, and so have BSAR teams in other states and countries. The concept of the 10 essentials has evolved over many years since first published by the Seattle Mountaineers in the mid-70s, and there is a good reason for this. Experienced backcountry recreationists tailor their backpack contents to the weather, the elevation, their experience and ability, the experience and ability of their companions, the number of folks in their party and other factors. Nonetheless, the goal for rescue teams remains the same: the ten essentials are not intended to make your trip more enjoyable or for you to be more satisfied with your trip, but rather to help ensure you can survive your trip when things go wrong. That is the goal of every backcountry adventure; to return home safely after enjoying the wilderness.
Having said that, the 10 essentials might make your outing more enjoyable too. Surely being cold, hungry or thirsty can take away from the experience of enjoying the backcountry. But that isn’t what BSAR teams care about. We care that if something goes wrong, you can survive long enough to self-rescue or for us to reach and rescue you.
In Colorado, a rescue may be a long time in coming. A BSAR team may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 30 hours or more to reach an injured party or find a lost party, depending on circumstances, distance, weather, elevation and terrain. We tell folks always to be prepared to spend the night if something goes awry. One of the most common statements we hear from rescue subjects is, “I was not prepared to wait as long as it took you to get here.”
Are you thinking, “It will never happen to me?” Colorado sees an average of 3000 backcountry rescue responses per year across the state. On top of that, the law of probability tells us there are plenty of folks who encounter mishaps in our mountains and manage to self-rescue, and those incidents are never recorded. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) reported hiker statistics for Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in 2021 for the first time and found that some of the more popular peaks in the Front Range and Ten Mile Range saw 15,000 to 40,000 hikers each that year. Some of these peaks may have 400 – 1000 climbers on them in a single day, so there are going to be incidents, great and small. Hikers often come to each other’s aid, knowing that a BSAR team response could be eight to ten hours away; the incidents we do respond to are typically those in which a subject is immobile and a litter extrication is needed.
The sheer volume of incidents means the real question is, how prepared are you to handle a mishap with what you carry in your pack? Can you help another member of your party self-rescue if something goes wrong? Do you have the gear to help prevent mishaps in the first place, such as clothing layers to prevent frostbite or hypothermia? And in a worst-case scenario, can you survive a night or two out? Carrying the 10 essentials is a good start. You might think of it as insurance; we buy insurance to manage risk, hoping that we will never need to use it, but when something goes wrong that insurance becomes our safety net.
We also advise backcountry recreationists to carry some sort of communications device in addition to the 10 essentials. A cell phone is a good idea, as cell service even in our remote backcountry may be possible at high elevation, although it’s important that you don’t count on it. You may not have reception, or your battery may not last as long as you need. Rescue team coordinators report that one of the most frequent things they hear from a rescue subject is, “I have a problem and I have only 4% battery life left.” We advise people to take steps to conserve their phone batteries, and to consider carrying a two-way satellite communication device for any backcountry adventure. These devices can alert rescue teams in minutes, give us an exact coordinate, and most importantly, allow for two-way communication between the rescue team and the injured party. These devices usually require a small monthly subscription fee but your life may depend upon it. If you are immobile, even a short distance from the trail head may seem like miles.
We also stress the importance of making a detailed trip plan and leaving it with a responsible adult back home who can call for help if you don’t return by your intended time. Many things can prevent you from making a 911 call when you need to – technology failures, lack of reception, or you’ve fallen and been knocked unconscious and/or separated from your backpack, just to name a few.
Questions on how to stay safe in the backcountry? Reach out to your local rescue teams and other official sources for help, education and guidance, and avoid advice from well-meaning people who have no backcountry rescue experience and suggest that you take short cuts. After all, what is your life worth to you and your loved ones?
Many thanks to Bruce Beckmann and Dale Atkins of Alpine Rescue Team for their work on this article.