Since tales of backcountry rescue are making the rounds I’ll share my closest calls.
By far the closest I’ve came to being rescued was New Years 2011/2012. My wife and I, along with 3 friends, were out for a few days of backcountry skiing in dicey avy conditions. We knew the avy risk forecast was high, but we figured we’d be okay by sticking to gentler terrain. Pragmatically this is hard when powder conditions are season best.
I won’t recount the full decision making process here, but in short we were overly bold with our line choices given the avy risk. On top of that we lowered our guard on a run because we had skied the same line the day prior. We didn’t notice the fresh wind loading over night. Additionally we were complacent because a certified alpine guide had skied the same run just minutes before. We told ourselves that if he thought it was okay then why we would know any better. “There’s nothing safer than following a certified guide” I said.
So the run slid. It could easily have been me and it should have been my wife, but our snowboarding friend was over eager and poached the first drop in while I was trying to coax my wife in. He put an ill advised slash on a convex roll and the small bowl above the chute ripped loose with a 2′ crown. It took him 1550′ vertical feet down the chute.
He ended up fortunate to have only recoverable injuries: broken pelvis, ACL, MCL, broken nose, cheekbone. He was also the only one in the group wearing a helmet, which ended up split in two. The run fanned out after the chute so he ended up only mildly buried. He was able to self-dig a tunnel to breathe through and we got there a few minutes later to dig him out.
Besides the obvious feelings of terror, the situation also felt weird as instinctually I knew there must be urgent life or death actions I needed to take but couldn’t think of any. His injuries were simply beyond anything we had the ability to deal with. We gave him one tylenol and he joked that he pelvis felt much better. All we did was gather up as much warm stuff from the cabin as we could while someone else skied out to call SAR. Two choppers arrived a few hours later and that was that.
I don’t have any other stories nearly that close to personal rescue. The second closest is perhaps the 2012 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open. In that event I woke up on the second day with a substantially sore knee (IT band) and a choice between 68 miles ahead to the finish or 30 miles back. I made the call to push onwards, being both stubborn and optimistic, and soon was an equal distance from either. I wasn’t in any danger of wanting to call for rescue, but I began to worry I wouldn’t make it out before my wife called SAR after 5 days, per my instructions.
On Day 2 I covered 24 miles, leaving 44. A similar pace going forward meant 2 more days, leaving 1 as a buffer before the SAR call. On day 3 I drugged quickly through my ibuprofen stash so my knee hurt less instead of more as it deserved to. Late in the day my ibuprofen was gone and I knew once I stopped walking my knee would probably seize up for good. I made the choice to keep walking and did so all night to the finish at 3:30am.
My end result of 3.5 days doesn’t look that close to 5, but that finish took everything I had. I couldn’t walk after. Had I came up short on that push I would have been close to immobile. As I drove home I stopped at a rest area to go pee and had so much difficulty getting out of the car that an elderly man offered me his cane.
So the lesson here is about managing room for error. If I had a sat device like I do now (Delorme InReach SE) I could have messaged my wife that I was running behind and then continued at a slower pace. Since I didn’t have one, I had a tough choice between bailing or forging ahead with an uncomfortably narrow window. After driving 14 hrs across the country for this it was hard to turn back, plus I’m stubborn and despite the pain still wanted to push on with the adventure. All of these conditions and attributes are fine, but recognizing this in advance and enlarging my margins accordingly would have been wise.
Safety margins aren’t a simple thing. They take a lot of discretion. I don’t think bringing a lot of food, a big knife or superfluous gear adds much in the way of a safety. A proper shelter does, as does the right planning, clothes, fire starter, communications devices and navigation equipment.
Another important safety consideration is knowing your body. The third closest call I’ve had was on a FKT attempt where I didn’t manage my water and electrolytes well and ended up dehydrated and heat exhausted. My heart starting racing – the first and only time in my life I’ve experienced this – so I stopped early and laid under my tarp for hours sans clothes. Hot but not sweating with a racing heart at 130 bpm for hours even after dark. I puked anything I tried to drink but eventually managed to drink some salt brine from a tuna package that added some electrolytes. Once I got that in I could drink some water a few hours later.
Interestingly all of these stories are within 10 months of each other, as is my 4th closest call packrafting. 2012 was definitely a year where I was taking risks.