Mountain Safety Note
- Lost Skier, Lessons Learned -
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The following is an excerpt from a message I wrote in the winter of 1997 for the Oregon State University Mountain Club.
Subject: Lost Skier Incident
During an avalanche class we were outside the Timberline ski area to the west, getting ready for the students to do some snow pit work. We heard a piercing scream for "HELP" coming up from below us which was repeated periodically. So one of the students and I went downslope to see what was up and what resources might be needed.
It turned out to be a woman who had skied out of bounds with a group of friends. The skiing conditions were not easy (certainly not groomed!) and she had lost her skis and did not know how to get back in-bounds. At some point during this ordeal her friends had disappeared and left her alone.
This story had a relatively happy ending because it was a simple matter to break a trail for her up to our group and point her towards the ski area from there, which was almost in sight. The ski patrol later confirmed that she had shown up. However she did lose a pair of skis, and could have fared much worse.
Some lessons from this:
Backcountry vs Developed areas: When you go out of bounds from a ski area or other development you are on your own. If you don't return somebody will look for you, eventually. Most likely. But it might be a while. Nobody is marking hazards or doing avalanche control. People sometimes go out of bounds on a whim - are you prepared to be in the backcountry? Also remember that early in the season ski areas are not controlled for avalanches and are backcountry even within their winter boundaries. Ignorance of this fact results in accidents every year.
Partners: Know who you are recreating with. What backcountry and emergency skills do they have? Will they stick together or will they abandon a group member who straggles or has a problem? If you are climbing steep technical terrain can they carry out a self-rescue? There is an excellent story on this in a recent American Alpine Club bulletin.
Don't Panic: What to do is a topic itself and may vary with the situation, group skills, and resources. What you don't want to do is panic. I'm doubtful that this woman would have survived a night if somebody had not helped her find her way back. Especially with a storm setting in as it was. She was distraught and had wasted a lot of energy without eating and drinking, setting herself up for dehydration and hypothermia. The previous year a snowboarder became stranded in this same area and spent two nights out before being found alive. His survival had a lot to do with his frame of mind and not panicking. Stop and think; come up with a plan.
Your group is responsible for itself: This is not the first time I've had to help out people in the mountains. So far I have been able to do this on the occasions when the situation arose without compromising my own group. This is a compromise I would not make, nor will most others. The ski patrol would have gone out looking but they scoffed at the idea of looking for her skis for her out of bounds. Don't assume somebody else will be able to help you out or clean up residual problems like lost gear.
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