Any backcountry trip requires preparedness, but in the winter when weather is harsh and days are shorter, your margin of error is even smaller.
Here are some tips from the experts for staying safe and getting rescued when things go wrong:
1. IT’S NOT “JUST A DAY HIKE.”
Stefan Lofgren, director of Mount Rainier National Park's climbing program, says day hikers should dress and pack as if they are going on an overnight backpacking trip. "Come prepared that at any moment you could get lost or hurt and need to spend a night or two," Lofgren said. "And be prepared to thrive, not barely cling to life."
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Chief ranger Chuck Young is the father of an 18-year-old mountaineer and constantly delivers him the same message: “Plan for the worst.”
“I probably drive him crazy,” Young said. “But I know when you are that age you feel invincible. But I tell him there are better mountaineers with much more experience that have died. ... If you need to bail then you need to bail.”
2. The Ten Essentials - Plus. "The Freedom of the Hills," written by experts from The Mountaineers of Seattle in 1960, was updated for the eighth time in 2010 and lists the following as the 10 essentials:
1. Navigation: Map and compass and the skills to use them
2. Sun protection: Sunglasses and sunscreen
3. Insulation: Extra clothing
4. Illumination: A headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries
5. First-aid supplies
6. Fire: Firestarter and matches or a lighter
7. Repair kit and tools including a knife
8. Nutrition: Extra food
9. Hydration: Extra water
10. Emergency shelter
“In the winter, double underline the extras,” said Mark Cooksley, president of Tacoma Mountain Rescue.
Lofgren also recommends taking a stove with extra fuel, a shovel and a snow saw to make building a snow shelter easier. He says consider taking a sleeping bag. A GPS (with extra batteries) is handy but electronics can fail. Lofgren also recommends a down coat.
If you are well prepared, he said, getting pinned down during a storm for a day or two might just feel more like an extended vacation than an emergency situation.
3. GET GOOD FORECASTS. Lofgren recommends checking forecasts from several weather services when planning your trip. He sometimes checks as many as 10. If the weather isn’t favorable, don’t be shy about postponing your trip. Links to recommended forecasts are on the park’s mountaineering blog, mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com. The website also regularly posts information on route conditions.
The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center provides avalanche forecasts daily at nwac.us. The center’s avalanche forecast hotline is 206-526-6677.
4. TAKE AN AVALANCHE CLASS. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” Lofgren said. A Level 1 avalanche class can teach you how to recognize dangerous areas, select routes and what to do if you are caught in an avalanche. The class also will teach you how to use avalanche beacons and probes. Classes are offered by clubs such as The Mountaineers and Crystal Mountain Resort.
5. PRACTICE. Don’t build your first snow cave or igloo in a storm on the Muir Snowfield. “You can practice a stone’s throw from the parking lot,” Lofgren said. And take a tent, Cooksley said, in case your snow shelter doesn’t work.
6. RESPECT THE WEATHER. Jo Johnson of Lacey and her boyfriend were caught in a blizzard for two nights last month. Even though she’s explored Mount Rainier for years, she said she’s never felt so disoriented in her life.
“I’m pretty good at navigating,” she said, “but it was like being blindfolded and whizzed around in the middle of a football stadium and then told to find a certain exit.”
The weather can change suddenly in the mountains, and you should be prepared to hunker down and wait for it to pass with the understanding that it could last days or even a week.
7. BE AWARE. “Rather than ‘what else can I carry,’ make sure you have good situational awareness,” Young said. “If you see things starting to cloud up, if it starts getting colder, be tuned into that. And be willing to change your plans. Always leave yourself an escape route.”
8. GET EDUCATED. Tacoma Mountain Rescue will provide free outdoor safety preparedness training for groups planning excursions, said unit safety education chairman Chris Berryman. To schedule training, call Berryman at 253-581-6614.
9. MOVE TO GET SAVED. Bright-colored clothes and gear are typically a good way to get spotted by rescue helicopters, Berryman said, but on the snow even bright colors can look like rocks.
“Make sure to move around because movement gets noticed,” Berryman said. “They might look like rocks, but rocks typically don’t run around.”
10. TELL SOMEBODY WHERE YOU WENT. Don’t just leave a note, Berryman said, tell somebody who understands the importance of their role in your safety. “This person needs to be just like mom,” he said. “They want to know where you are at all times.”
This, Berryman said, is not just one of the simplest and most basic survival steps, “it’s also the most important.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497