Minimal prep means more rescues in wild
Water and a way to purify it
Rain gear and extra clothing
Firestarter and matches
First aid kit
Knife or multi-purpose tool
Flashlight and extra batteries
Sunscreen and sunglasses
Several high-profile backcountry rescues over the summer and fall are a reminder to locals and visitors alike that the mountains are dangerous.
Mountain Rescue Aspen, a nonprofit that serves Pitkin County, handled 71 incidents so far this year, including several hairy operations on the dangerously unstable rock of the Maroon Bells. Garfield County rescues were down, but lack of preparation was the common denominator.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in the number of missions that we’ve run,” said Jeff Edelson, Mountain Rescue Aspen team president. “We’re extremely busy during the summer hiking and climbing season.”
Edelson suspects that’s partially due to the proliferation of mountaineering information on the Internet. He’s seeing more and more people attempting summits or trails with minimal preparation and partners they’ve met online.
“It’s giving people this false sense of security,” he said. “When in doubt, underestimate your ability.”
He encouraged hikers to practice on easier summits before tackling the Elk Range’s difficult array of peaks.
“One of your first 14ers should not be the Maroon Bells,” he said. The same goes for Pyramid, Capitol, Snowmass or Castle summits.
“The best thing to do is prevention,” Edelson said. “Know where you’re going, be prepared, and have the skills and knowledge.”
While most Pitkin County rescues take place in the deep backcountry, most of Garfield County Search and Rescue’s incidents are closer to home. Garfield County saw fewer than 50 rescues for the season, a decline. A hiker twists an ankle attempting Hanging Lake in flip flops, a hunter on the Flat Tops gets caught in a storm, or someone tubing without a life jacket gets stuck in the river.
“It’s pretty broad what we do,” said GCSAR President Tom Ice. “The majority of cases we deal with are just people that were not prepared.”
“People who live here get complacent,” agreed Mike Kuper, vice president. “I don’t think they realize the danger.”
The biggest mistake, Kuper said, is people underestimating what they’re up against in terms of terrain, weather and the effects of elevation. Many people go into the woods woefully unprepared. Kuper and Ice advocated packing the “10 essentials” (see sidebar) before heading out on even an apparently easy excursion.
In the winter, having more than just a lighter for getting a fire started is particularly important, as are extra batteries and warm, non-cotton clothing.
“If you’ve got room in your pack, throw some extra layers in there,” Ice said. “You can never have enough warm clothes.”
It’s always a good idea to adventure with a buddy, but whether you’re going in a group or heading out alone, make sure to tell someone.
“Notify whoever’s at home how long you’re going to be gone and where you’re going,” Kuper said.
Search and Rescue teams get a lot of their tips from family and friends of overdue outdoorsman. Other times, someone manages to hike to high ground and get a call out. Cell phones, along with GPS and emergency beacons, are excellent survival tools, provided they’re used properly.
Not all GPS systems are created equal. Ice recommends the smartphone app Backcountry Navigator, but nothing’s a replacement for a good, up-to-date topographic map.
Emergency beacons, while extremely useful, also have their downsides.
“We’re now finding out about accidents at the time of the accident instead of six hours later,” Edelson said. “Beacons are great safety devices, but people shouldn’t take additional risk because they have them.”
If you get lost, try not to panic. Leave clues as to where you’ve been, and make use of the signal whistle you probably have built into your backpack.
“It’s not hard to get lost. It’s hard to stay calm and not get yourself more lost,” Kuper said. “You can turn a lost hiker search into a full-blown technical rescue by people trying to take that shortcut.”
Instead, you’re better off holing up.
“If you think you may have to spend a night out, get that shelter up first,” Ice said. “Get 10 times as much firewood as you think you might need, ‘cause you’re gonna need every bit of it.”
In the end, rescuers around the state would rather you called them sooner rather than waiting for things to get worse. GCSAR and MRA are both nonprofits, getting money from fundraising, fishing and hunting licenses, and sales of Colorado Search and Rescue cards.
Unless you need a medical helicopter, it shouldn’t cost you anything to get carried out of the wilderness.
“We don’t want people sitting in the backcountry going, ‘Should I call, should I not call?’” Kuper said.
“We encourage people to get into the backcountry just to do it safely,” Ice agreed.
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The Forest Service plans to replace the Carbondale Aspen-Sopris ranger district station with a newer, larger facility.