Winter incidents involving calls for search and rescue include slips and falls, people becoming disoriented or lost, medical emergencies, and winter hazards. Most also include the threat of or actual cold injuries such as hypothermia. Here are insights to help avoid these life-threatening situations.
- Slips or falls may result in injury or cause the person to slide into difficult terrain, often to where they are unable to regain their route of travel. They may also move from having cell phone service to a place where the signal is blocked.
- Subjects become lost or disoriented when not using navigation tools to verify their own position and route; they “just followed the tracks” and then lose the route. Unofficial, unmarked trails may disappear when snow-covered or in low visibility of weather or darkness.
- Winter increases hazards such as slick footing especially on steep terrain, deep snow, tree wells, avalanche areas, and changing weather conditions.
- Cold weather, winds, and storms make proper clothing layers and emergency shelter life-saving essentials. Be prepared to stay warm and dry for a number of hours. SAR responds with urgency, but it takes time for volunteers to reach field locations.
Be ready to stay safe and warm in your vehicle in case of road closures or waiting for help. The Washington State Department of Transportation provides winter driving tips and a list what to carry in your car.
Plan the outing. Let someone know where you’re going, when you’ll return, and what to do if you don’t return on time. Get the training. Take the essentials.
Maps and signs show runs, trails, boundaries and hazards. Know where you are and how to return to the lifts or facilities. In un-groomed areas, be alert for tree wells and deep snow obscuring obstacles. Ski/ride with a partner.
The Washington State Parks Winter Recreation Program includes a wide variety of locations on federal, state, and private lands for motorized and non-motorized winter sports. The website has information on trails, passes/permits, warming huts, maps and lots more.
Northwest Avalanche Center
Much more than avalanche forecasts, NWAC provides information, education, and tips for winter recreation. https://nwac.us/backcountry-basics and https://nwac.us/2021/12/03/winter-hiking-and-snowshoeing-in-the-cascades/#more-7858
Beacon Check Stations
Heading for the backcountry? “Are You Beeping” signs at popular winter trailheads provide a basic test that avalanche beacons are turned on and transmitting. But take a few minutes more before you head out on the day’s adventure.
- Check the latest forecasts and observations at the Northwest Avalanche Center.
- Does everyone in the party have a beacon, probe, shovel and other essential gear?
- Complete a trailhead transceiver check for battery power plus operation in both transmit and search modes.
Backcountry usage is rapidly increasing, leading to a greater concentration of recreationists in popular zones. There have been close calls involving multiple parties skiing on top of each other or descending while other users are ascending the same complex terrain. By using pre-defined family radio service (FRS) radio channels to communicate at appropriate times, groups can report when entering in, travelling through, and exiting potentially exposed terrain. They can also share critical safety information.