Swift-water Crossing

Everyone loves it when they can spend time in and around the streams in our mountains. Most of the time, it represents a chance to cool off and enjoy the sights and sounds associated with moving water. 

The situation changes when the water is high or moving swiftly. First and foremost, if you have ANY doubt, reconsider your plans and avoid a water crossing entirely. 

During the spring months, many streams become filled with high volumes of water due to snowmelt and crossing streams during this time can present significant risks.
– Water levels/flow that may be modest in the morning may increase significantly later in the day when snowmelt reaches its maximum.
– Crossing later in the day may be more difficult.

Do not automatically follow other hikers into a crossing without assessing it yourself.

Relatively modest amounts of moving water create significant forces that are more than sufficient to sweep someone off their feet.
– Children or smaller people are at higher risk.

Even for good swimmers, swimming in fast moving water is quite dangerous.
– Streambeds filled with rocks and rapids or water flowing in/around debris can easily result in significant traumatic injuries.
– Entrapment and drowning is a notable risk.
– Being swept hundreds of yards or even miles downstream is a possibility.

“Rock hopping” or trying to cross on a log may increase your chances of slipping/falling.

A rope stretched across the stream may be used as a handline but you should never attach yourself to the rope.
– If you are tied into a rope and are swept off your feet, you may not be able to escape the rope and will be pushed down and held under the moving water.

Always cross with the rope on the upstream side of your body to limit risk of entanglement.

We encourage you to learn more about stream crossing techniques and considerations by going to some of the many good online resources (Stream crossing safety while hiking and backpacking – Pacific Crest Trail Association (pcta.org); How to Cross Streams and Rivers – Trailspace) or by picking up a copy of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 9th Edition — Books (mountaineers.org) which can provide additional information on safely crossing moving water. 

Go out to a safe location and practice these techniques with your friends.

As always, never hesitate to turn around if you are uncomfortable. The hike will still be there when the water is lower.

Waiting till water flows to drop is often the best choice. 

Critically Missing in Strawberry Meadows

Many people who follow the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team or other SAR teams on social media are familiar with what we do and our messages on how to be safe in the mountains and avoid ever needing our services. What many are not familiar with is how a SAR operation evolves. The often demanding physical and mental effort in challenging conditions involving many individuals, SAR teams and other agencies that usually lead to a successful outcome are notable and worth sharing.

At 10:28pm Sunday night, the pager went off. Montrose Search and Rescue was requesting help to search for an autistic, deaf, missing person in the Strawberry Meadows area. Along with children, individuals with disabilities are considered as “critical” subjects where time is of the essence – particularly if weather or location present notable risks. Ten members of SMSR stopped getting ready for bed and shifted to getting ready to head out into the night in sub-freezing temperatures to support the search effort.

The missing person, who was separated from his group, had been missing since just before noon. Like many hikers out for the day, our missing person was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, simple sneakers, and was not carrying any supplies. His friends and other hikers made every effort to locate him, but his disappearance wasn’t reported to SAR until late evening. As weather conditions were deteriorating, SAR teams knew time was of the essence to prevent hypothermia, dehydration, or risk of injury.

Utilizing information gathered from the friends of the missing person combined with detailed knowledge of the area, senior members of the responding SAR teams acting as the “operations leader/incident commander” (in this case, since it was in their area, Montrose SAR personnel filled this role) determined the best course of action. Rescuers from Montrose, Altadena, LASD ESD, and Sierra Madre were deployed from various trailheads to maximize our ability to quickly locate our missing hiker. Covering areas in which a missing person is likely to be found is one of the reasons SAR operations require large numbers of trained personnel. A helicopter from Los Angeles County Fire joined the search for almost an hour but, due to the low clouds and fog, they were not able to locate our missing hiker. 

One team, who was alerted by their search dog, stopped, and heard moaning sounds emanating from hundreds of feet below the trail. A rescuer from Montrose SAR went over the side into the canyon and confirmed that we had located our missing subject and while he had only minor injuries, extensive work would be required to rescue him. It was now just before 1 a.m. on Monday morning.  

Rescuers had been in the field now for nearly 3 hours and the weather remained poor with fog limiting visibility and a constant drizzle ensuring that everyone was wet. The missing hiker had been found approx. 3.3 miles from the nearest road and now that the “search” part of the search-and-rescue operation was done, crews on other search assignments shifted their focus to rescue.  SMSR was requested to bring the equipment necessary for the technical rescue of a subject over 500’ off the trail and in a canyon. Carrying multiple 150’ coils of rope, a rescue litter and wheel, and equipment to set-up rope rescue systems the teams also gathered extra clothing and additional medical equipment that would be necessary to care for the hiker during what would be several more hours on the mountain.  The SMSR field crews, composed of 3 women and 4 men (many are surprised by the diversity in SAR) traveled through the mist, over snow and ice, and downed trees to aid in the rescue. 

Members of these crews rappelled down to the missing hiker and joined the rescuer already with him to assess his injuries and provide him with warm clothing, gloves, and a hat. By putting rope hand lines in place, they were able to help him climb 300’ before the terrain became too steep and choked with downed trees to continue. With the possibility of a long technical rescue and with on scene crews having been in the field for an extended time, additional resources from other LASD SAR teams were requested. With the arrival of additional rescuers and more resources from the San Dimas Mountain Rescue Team enroute to augment existing personnel, systems were built to lower a rescuer on a rope rescue “system” in order to initiate what we call a  “stranded hiker” rescue. 

Due to the unique circumstances associated with a deaf and autistic individual, two rescuers, one above to help with face-to-face communication, and one below to help guide him worked in conjunction with the rope rescue equipment being managed by the personnel on the trail to get our hiker out of the canyon. Although he was worn out and suffering from a deep cut over one eye and several lacerations on both legs, the hiker was quite brave and determined to help us help him get to safety. It was now just after 7 a.m. Crews had now been in the field for over 10 hours.

Based on trail conditions observed during the search, crews knew the trails for a possible ground evacuation contained too many hazards for a “wheel out” utilizing a rescue litter and wheel. Various evacuation options were considered and rescue leaders felt that, if a small break in the weather were to be present, a helicopter-based rescue would be the best option. A request was made to the Los Angeles County Fire Department for assistance and LACoFD’s ‘Copter 22 flew in to assess the possibility of a hoist. The weather turned out to be quite marginal, but we got lucky with a moment of clearing. With a hoist rescue not being possible, crews quickly got our hiker ready for transport and assisted him to an area where the helicopter could land on one wheel. Members helped our hiker climb into the Helicopter, and he was off to a trauma center. This is the video we shared earlier that shows about 90 seconds of what had transpired up to that point. It was now just about 8 a.m. and rescuers had been in the field for 11 hours. 

While  our subject was safely transported and out of the mountains, rescuers still needed to safely get off the mountain. Rescuers gathered all their equipment and began the hike out. Thankfully, the fresh rescuers from San Dimas met us along the trail to help the fatigued crew carry the gear out. Crews reached the command post at Red Box at approximately 9:30 a.m. and just over 12 hours since beginning the operation. We are glad to have been trained and equipped to support this SAR effort and hope this write-up gives you a sense for how SAR is a “team” activity that involves a lot of effort on the part of many individuals and agencies.  

SMSR wants to remind everyone that even though the weather in local towns is warm and sunny, extreme conditions continue to exist  above 3500’. Please be prepared for these conditions – including being equipped to spend an unexpected night out, never hesitate to turn back when hazards arise, and do not delay on calling for assistance.

Rescue with Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit

On Saturday, January 21st, the Team was paged to assist Altadena Mountain Rescue with four hikers and a dog stuck above the second waterfall in Eaton Canyon. With the help of LACoFD, all were safely rescued.

Upon arriving back at the station, a mutual aid request was sent to teams throughout the state to assist Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit with a rescue for a woman who slipped 150’ on ice earlier that afternoon. Two members of RMRU hiked in late afternoon to provide warm clothing, a sleeping bag, and spent the night hovering over the subject to provide protection from ice blocks that rolled down the slope throughout the night. 

Four members of SMSR arrived at the command post around midnight. After being briefed on the mission, assembling the needed rescue equipment, and traveling to the trailhead, they started their 6 mile approach with three members of San Dimas Mountain Rescue Team and three members of Orange County Mountain Rescue Team around 2AM. Members of the San Diego Mountain Rescue Unit happened to be winter training in the area and sent a few members in the middle of the night to assist from another approach route, but unfortunately were not able to access the scene due to hazardous ice conditions. Sierra Madre, San Dimas, and Orange County hiked throughout the night and arrived on scene by 9:30AM, after traversing an icy slope that required the use of proper snow travel technique with ice axes and crampons. With a combination of wind and sun, blocks of ice were falling from trees and rolling down while the teams were making their way towards the subject. 

High winds prevented helicopter operations, so the teams worked together to build rope systems to raise the subject back onto the trail in a litter and discussed staying another night until winds were favorable for a hoist or performing a series of lowers and raises to avoid moving the litter on an unsafe, icy trail. 

Four members of Winter SAR Ski Patrol arrived on scene to help haul the subject up to the trail. Around 3:30PM, winds had finally calmed and CalFire Copter301 was able to hoist the subject and her husband out. Together, the four teams gathered equipment and made their way back to the trailhead, meanwhile seven SMSR members hiked up the trail to meet with the four crews and carry their gear out. By 7PM, all teams were out of the field.

 Here are a few takeaways from this operation:

  • Hikers commonly mistake microspikes for crampons. Crampons have 10+ large spikes on the bottom and are worn with sturdy boots for crossing or climbing icy, high-angle slopes. Microspikes have small ¼ to ½ inch long spikes and are meant for flat terrain only. A basic set of strap-on crampons will cost around $150 minimum, while microspikes are around $75.
  • A wide, flat trail in the summer becomes a steep, slippery slope in the winter, with dangerous consequences in the event of a fall.
  • Turning around when conditions are unsafe is imperative to returning home safely.
  • Clear blue skies, known as “bluebird” days, do not always mean good snow conditions. 
  • Snow conditions may change throughout the day.  Afternoon snow may be soft enough to walk across, but could turn into hard ice by evening that persists throughout the next morning.  
  • Supportive agencies (i.e., Sheriff’s Department or Fire) can assist with helicopter hoists, but they are dependent on weather conditions and other factors. It is unsafe for helicopters to hoist subjects if there are high winds, so a hoist cannot be guaranteed. 
  • Rescue personnel have the option to decline any assignment that team members do not feel safe proceeding.

Mountain Safety Message

For many, the repeated messages about mountain safety may seem excessive but given the current volume and seriousness of recent accidents in our local mountains, local SAR teams would like to reiterate and reinforce key safety considerations.

Venturing into the mountains at this time of year requires not only the proper equipment, but the skills and experience to recognize hazards of all types AND make informed decisions on mitigating those risks. Conditions will be variable and will change over time, often while you are on the mountain. You cannot control any of the objective risks associated with avalanches, weather, or terrain, but you CAN control your decision making and preparedness. Be honest with yourself and your partners in assessing your experience and readiness to address current conditions. If you are feeling uncertain or nervous – that is a warning to which you should listen. It’s important to note SAR teams are trained to perform rescues in various weather and terrain, but the conditions can still pose threats to their safety, causing them to decline an assignment and turn around, which could delay a rescue. 

Mountain SAR resources from throughout California are being stretched thin. In January alone, three individuals remain missing and two people are dead on Mt. Baldy and the surrounding peaks. Another hiker remains missing on Cucamonga Peak since the Fall. This week, SoCal teams rescued two hikers from Mt. San Jacinto that involved rope rescue systems and took over 24 hours to complete. In our current conditions, a rescue may take many, many hours even if you’ve triggered an SOS via inReach or similar satellite messenger. Helicopters can be a great resource to assist SAR teams, but they cannot fly in high winds or poor weather. Being appropriately equipped (i.e., carrying the gear necessary to spend the night, in addition to the “Ten Essentials”) to spend significant time on the mountain waiting for ground crews to hike to your location may mean the difference between surviving and dying – even in the case of a “minor” injury. Solo travel will SIGNIFICANTLY increase your risks should something happen. ALL the missing hikers were alone or had separated from their group.

Let a responsible person in town know where you’re going, planned route, and when you plan on returning. 

“Walking away is the chance to come back someday.”

Mountaineering Risk Assessment

Beyond responding to emergencies, part of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team’s mission is to provide education and guidance that helps prevent the need for a search and rescue response. We hope the information shared here provides hikers and others insight and items to consider related to decision making and assessing risk. 

For the most part, we think of dangers/hazards as falling into two distinct categories – objective and subjective.
Objective hazards are those outside of our control and include things like weather, falling rocks/ice, avalanches, errors of other people, etc. It is impossible to entirely see or assess all sources of objective danger or influence them, i.e., a rock may spontaneously fall regardless of what we may do. What we can do is consider what we can do to help recognize and mitigate those objective hazards. In cases of extreme objective hazard, e.g., extreme avalanche risk, the appropriate mitigation strategy may be to stay home. 

Subjective dangers are those that have their origins in us as outdoor recreationalists. These subjective dangers are largely in our control and typically include lack of experience, ignorance (“I don’t know that I don’t know”), errors in judgment, poor fitness/exhaustion, insufficient equipment, poor planning (this could include an objective that is outside your skill set), etc. Often thought of as “human factors”, these dangers can be mitigated through actions we take in decision making, planning, training, acquiring the proper equipment, and building skills/experience. 

Many accidents are a result of a combination of both sources of danger, and while it may not be flattering, WE (people) are the problem – we do stupid things – all the time (mostly without major consequences). 

For our mountain adventures we often focus on acquiring the “right” equipment or making big plans and spend less time on thinking about how we make decisions. It is fair to say that people tend to be overly confident when evaluating their experience and this can blind us and limit our recognition of warning signs, e.g., deteriorating weather, evidence of avalanches, etc., that the mountain is sharing. We often filter observations of objective information with ego, emotion, and impulsivity. The root of these errors most often lies in the subjective part of our decision making and a failure to make full use of objective factors and information. 

The mountains are always telling us a story – the snowy slope is getting steeper and icier; chunks of ice are falling from trees or rockfall is increasing as temperatures warm; bad weather is moving in; etc. The story is dynamic, continually changing, often complicated and frequently quite nuanced. Our individual and collective (group) skills and experience are key factors in gleaning insight and taking action based on this information.

Being honest in our assessment is a key aspect in our decision making and interpreting the mountain’s story. Some things are readily apparent (“I know that I know”) such as observing deteriorating weather, but we may still overlook, or not recognize key factors. Even for experienced people, fatigue can be a big contributor to missing something important. Other dangers may be more difficult to assess (“I know that I don’t know”) because we only have partial knowledge about them and the most we can do is take preventive measures against them, e.g., wearing a helmet because we never know when rock/icefall may occur. The most challenging situation is one where we are largely ignorant (“I don’t know that I don’t know”) because we don’t know about the danger and are therefore taking risks and we don’t even know it.
For beginners, insufficient experience often can result in not recognizing key information in the mountain’s story, but even experienced mountaineers are not immune.
Another key aspect of decision making is recognizing that when selecting, assessing, and interpreting information our own biases can play a significant role and adversely impact our decisions. We often focus on information that reinforces our preconceived or preferred point of view and ignore other information. This “confirmation” bias can create a serious blind spot in our decision making and often looking FOR risk factors (i.e., what am I seeing that could be a risk factor?) vs. an absence of risk factors can often help increase risk awareness and aversion. We also need to account for other human factors (often referred to as “heuristics”) including:

F: Familiarity – We find comfort in the familiar and may feel safer with trails and routes we know, particularly if we have hiked a trail or climbed a peak dozens of times before, with nothing bad happening. This is particularly dangerous when some key material fact is different, e.g., a mountain in the winter vs. summer.

A: Acceptance – The desire to fit in is powerful and social media can often drive behavior. A desire to “fit in” can influence decision making.

C: Commitment – The desire to meet some objective (i.e., summit the mountain) can be a powerful driver even if the conditions may be questionable.

E: Expert Halo – Someone in your group may have high levels of knowledge or exude confidence that can influence an entire group. This may lead others to follow without raising concerns or questions.

T: Tracks/Scarcity – The idea that a particular resource is “scarce” (e.g., a snow-covered Mt. Baden-Powell) and must be experienced before the snow is gone can cloud judgment.

S: Social Proof – Previous tracks leading up a slope or a line of other hikers ascending some route can give you a false sense of security (i.e., they are going up, it must be safe). Just because other people are on the same path, does not mean that it is safe to follow their path.

We are aware that many of the factors noted above are at play in an environment where social media may drive some of these dynamics. Developed as part of a strategy to look at avalanche risks (Ian McCammon, http://www.sunrockice.com/docs/Heuristic%20traps%20IM%202004.pdf
), the above mnemonic, FACETS, can help you recognize human factors that should be part of your thinking. 

The concepts shared here are far from exhaustive but are representative of a decision making and risk management mindset that, combined with on-site observations and your (your group’s) skillset, experience, and equipment, can help you make informed decisions. Thinking about how you approach gathering information and interpreting it to help mitigate risk is a key element of enjoying our mountains safely. Taking classes, reading books, and learning from more experienced people are all great options to build your skills and competence.

The Dog Stories of Sierra Madre Search and Rescue

Sierra Madre Search and Rescue’s (SMSR) motto is “anywhere in the wilderness that someone needs help.” And by anyone we mean human, dog, donkey, mule, horse or bear. Yes, we’ve rescued them all, but the dogs we have rescued have a special place in our hearts.

Since the team started keeping records, in 2003, there have been 41 dog rescues. The Team has helped dogs that have been out with their lost owners, stranded in steep terrain, dangerously overheated, or simply exhausted.

Overheated Dogs

In the last couple of years SMSR has seen multiple overheated dogs on the Mount Wilson Trail. This trail has very little access to water or shade and is a dangerous place for a dog on a warm day. In these cases, rescuers responded with extra water, frozen water bottles and ice packs to begin cooling the dogs immediately and then transported the dogs off the mountain. 

When considering taking your dog for a hike, remember that short snout breeds like pugs and Boston terriers are not great hikers. They are especially prone to exhaustion and overheating. If temperatures will be reaching 75℉ carefully consider how dark your dog’s coat is and how much shade is on the trail. If temperatures will reach 80℉ it is best for your dog to stay home. When your dog does join you for a hike be sure you carry plenty of water for both of you. 

Lost Dogs

Two dogs SMSR helped this summer spent an unexpected night out with their owner and a friend when the group got lost on a hike to Cooper Canyon Falls. A SMSR team was thrilled to find the group alive and well the next day, and hiked the women back to the trailhead giving the exhausted pups a ride for most of the hike out.

In 2019 one dog helped lead rescuers to their missing owner. On July 12 Sheryl Powell and her dog went missing from the Grandview Campground near the Bristlecone Pine Forest. Teams from across California joined in the search and on day 4 of the search the dog was found, alive and well. This find caused search assignments to be shifted to the area, and later in the day Mrs. Powell was located alive and well by a SMSR crew. 

Stranded Dogs

Another dog helped lead SMSR to a new team member. In 2014 Bandit was out hiking with his owner, Michael Owens, when Bandit got stranded on a narrow ledge off trail. Our friends with the Montrose Search and Rescue Team, sent rescuers down on ropes to retrieve Bandit and hoist him back up to the trail. This was Owens’ introduction to what mountain rescuers do, and shortly after Owens joined SMSR.  

Behind every search, and each rescue that SMSR responds to there is a story to be told. But the ones that involve dogs are especially memorable to our teammates. Although we are always ready to help any dog that needs it, we’d rather you be prepared when you are hiking with your dog so that we don’t have to. 

Know that dogs build physical fitness just like you. If your dog only takes walks around the block, they’re not ready for a 14 mile trip to Mt. Wilson. Be cautious about putting them in a situation where they will overheat. Know that your dog will be safest on a leash.

Since 1951, the all-volunteer Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team has responded to calls for help in the local mountains and beyond.  SMSR also provides a range of wilderness safety programs. The Team never charges for any of these services, and is funded entirely by charitable donations. For more information, to donate, or to arrange a wilderness safety demonstration for your school or group, visit www.smsr.org

Lost on Mt. Waterman

Just after midnight on Saturday, May 15th the pagers of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team (SMSR) went off. A dozen team members had just crawled into sleeping bags in Joshua Tree National Park after an all-day navigation exercise. They would respond to the call after a few hours of sleep, but team members who were in town immediately responded to assist Montrose Search and Rescue in the search for a missing hiker on Mt. Waterman.

The search effort continued for 4 days. On Wednesday, May 19th Dave Null was located by the Air Rescue 5 helicopter. He was alive and well, but deep in rugged terrain in Bear Canyon. He was far off track from the hike at Mt. Waterman that he’d started Saturday.

This was the third multi-day search near Mt. Waterman this spring. In March, Narineh Avakian’s body was found 6 days after she left for a day hike, and in April, Rene Compean spent an unexpected night out before being rescued.

They were lost.

All of these searchers were for lost hikers. None of these hikers were injured and immobilized. They hadn’t fallen down or gotten trapped at the bottom of a cliff. They were lost.

Without a basic map, even a simple unexpected trail intersection can get a hiker lost. And if a hiker loses the trail, strong navigation skills are needed to negotiate the San Gabriel Mountains. During the Null search, weather was a complicating factor. Clouds rolled up and down the Waterman drainages, wrapped around the peaks and rolled over ridges. One minute, searchers were in the sun, and the next minute, they’d be in a misty cloud bank.

Cloud cover like this can be very disorienting. It is easy to lose a sense of where you are when you cannot see any landmarks or the terrain around you. Even experienced field teams who are familiar with the area had to drop their packs during the search and spend time with their GPS and a map to verify their location and lock in a direction of travel on their compass.

Map and Compass

Members of SMSR carry a map, compass, GPS unit, and now often a phone with us at all times. While using Gaia or other apps on the phone can be very useful, we never rely on them (or their batteries) as our sole means of navigation. We do rely on the skills we’ve all tested at the Joshua Tree navigation exercise. At this exercise, team members use nothing more than a map and compass to navigate to a point on our map where we’ll find a small flag which has a clue for plotting our next point on the map. It is a difficult exercise, but it develops an essentials skill.

SMSR encourages you to prepare for your hikes by carrying a map and compass and knowing how to use them as well as your GPS or cell phone. Read articles in Outside magazine, listen to podcasts like The Sharp End, learn from more experienced friends, take a class at REI, or read books like Staying Found. But start by purchasing a map. Tom Harrison and National Geographic both put out good maps of our local mountains. Carry them with you. Open them up and practice using them.

Since 1951, the all-volunteer Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team has responded to calls for help in the local mountains and beyond. Visit smsr.org to read more about how to prepare to head into the wilderness, learn about the Team, or donate.

Getting Help

For many of us, hiking and spending time in the mountains is a great activity to relax, exercise, and enjoy the great outdoors. Having a problem and getting lost is not something we hope to experience, but it raises an important question, “What do I do when I think I might be lost in the backcountry?

The acronym STOP is commonly used to guide your decision making in the first key moments when you realize you may be lost.

The “S” is for STOP. Don’t continue to hike if you are not sure where you are or where you need to go. Continuing to move will make it difficult to find you, increase your chances of injury, fatigue, and stress levels, and decrease your ability to think critically. Do not keep moving unless it is necessary.

This is the time to engage your brain and THINK (the “T” in STOP). Self-care is of primary importance. Have a snack and hydrate. Hypothermia can occur in 50°F temperatures so we recommend adding a layer.

O” is for OBSERVE. Stay calm. Take stock of your situation. What landmarks are visible? Are you still on the trail? Are weather or trail conditions deteriorating? Is it close to sunset?

All of your observations serve as inputs into the next step, “P” or PLAN. Take an inventory of your supplies. Are you equipped for potentially spending a night out? Do you need to find shelter or get out of a location where you may be at risk of injury? Do you have an emergency signaling device like a PLB or 2-way satellite messenger device? If yes, your best option may be to trigger the emergency signaling device, find a safe location, and wait for assistance.

While many people carry satellite messenger devices, almost everyone is carrying a cell phone. Is your phone with you and is it charged? How much battery life does it have? Do not waste battery power on flashlight use. Instead, save it for communication. Even if you do not have cell signal, dialing or texting 911 may help initiate rescue by allowing Search and Rescue to triangulate your position within a mile or two, which narrows the search effort considerably.

Report the following when you make your 911 call:
– Any relevant medical condition or injury you may have
– Where you parked your car and its description
– What time of day you started and how long you’ve been moving
– The direction you took from the car, trail signs, and your hiking objective
– Describe yourself: age, height, weight, what you’re wearing, and what equipment you have with you. Search and Rescue personnel are trained in searching and tracking, so describe your footwear and size.

You may feel reluctant to dial 911, but reaching out early, before the weather turns nasty or run out of daylight, is the smart thing to do. Limit phone use to emergency personnel only and ask them to use text to save battery power. Turn on “location” information on your phone, take a photo, and try to send it out so we can grab the GPS coordinates encoded in it. Do not use Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, or any other app that will time out.

If you hear shouts, answer them. If you have a whistle, use it. If you’re carrying a backpack, check the sternum strap, as most packs have an incorporated whistle. Three whistle blasts is the universal distress signal.

If you hear a helicopter approaching, gather your belongings quickly and make yourself noticeable by standing in the open, waving your jacket or colorful clothing item, or flashing a reflective object such as a mirror. Wear your sunglasses to protect your eyes from debris kicked up by helicopter rotor wash.

After the rescue, ask Search and Rescue personnel about what you could have done better, and avoid any future rescues with good preparation!

Sierra Madre Search and Rescue searches for Maria Tice

The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team (SMSR) has been assisting San Dimas Mountain Rescue Team (SDMRT) in the search for Maria Loida Tice. This 60 year old woman is missing after heading out on a hike to Iron Mountain with a Meetup group on Saturday February 13th. She was last seen by other hikers around noon as she was nearing the summit and still hiking towards the top.

Iron Mountain is considered one of the most strenuous hikes in Southern California. The trailhead at Heaton Flats starts at an elevation of 2,000 feet and the trail climbs about 7 miles up to the peak at just over 8,000 feet. The trail is rough and rugged. A few years ago this peak was rarely hiked, but it has recently become more popular. It is part of a worrying trend that the Search and Rescue team is seeing. Social media sites are pushing people to attempt hikes they never would have heard of before, and that are often beyond their capabilities. 

Members of the Meetup group Tice was hiking with summited before her and saw her on their descent. She still wanted to continue to the summit. Tice was not reported missing until Wednesday February 17th by concerned coworkers. Members of the SDMRT and SMSR responded immediately and raced to get searchers inserted by helicopter onto the peak before sunset. Searchers then worked through the night on the mountain. 

On Thursday February 18th searchers were called in from around Los Angeles county. On the weekend the call for help extended throughout southern California with teams from Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties responding. Dozens of searchers, dog teams and multiple airships have participated in the search. The terrain is vast and grueling. Search assignments have been starting first thing in the morning and sometimes aren’t completed until the early hours of the next day.   

Unfortunately this is not the first search SMSR has been a part of involving a Meetup Group or other hiking group. Below are some tips you can follow to keep yourself and others safe when participating in a hiking group. Following these simple steps could save someone’s life:

Do not depend on someone else in the group to take care of you.

  • Carry the 10 essentials
  • Carry a map that you have looked at to get an idea of the area you are hiking
  • Tell someone who is not on the trip where you are and when to expect you back  

Take steps to look out for your fellow hikers. If the group leader isn’t doing it, you can.

  • When you meet in the parking lot create a list of everyone’s:
    • Name
    • Cell phone number
    • Emergency contact
    • License plate
  • Have a knowledgeable hiker who knows the route lead
  • Put a strong hiker in the back (a sweep). The sweep never passes a group member.
  • Group up at trail junctions or any possible points of confusion
  • Be sure everyone makes it off of the mountain.

If a group member decides to separate from the group for any reason be sure they get off of the mountain safely. Check for their car in the parking lot when you return (you have their license plate number on your list) or call them later in the evening (you have their number on your list.) If they don’t make it off of the mountain call 911. This simple act could save a life. 

SMSR is grateful to the people they have found on social media who were hiking the mountain the day Tice went missing. They have provided valuable information to help in this search. 

Anyone with information on Tice’s whereabouts is urged to call the sheriff’s department’s missing persons unit at 323-890-5500.

Since 1951, the all-volunteer Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team has responded to calls for help in the local mountains and beyond.  SMSR also provides a range of free wilderness safety education programs. For more information on the Team, to donate, or to arrange a wilderness safety demonstration for your school or group, visit www.smsr.org. 

Avalanche Awareness

In light of the recent avalanche incident on Mt. Baldy and in the interest of safety and Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR), we’re sharing the following general information about avalanche risks and travel in avalanche terrain.

ALPTRUTh is a mnemonic that can help you assess risk. If we have 3 or more of the factors present below, it should trigger a red flag in your brain, and prompt you to reconsider whether your travel plans and proposed route makes sense.

A: Avalanche – Have there been any recent avalanches within the last 48 hours? An avalanche that has just occurred on or near your route of travel is a SIGNIFICANT red flag that should NOT be ignored – you are in a high risk situation!

L: Loading – Has there been loading on the slope by snow, wind, or rain in the last 48 hours? Recent snowfall of >12″ will be a cause for concern.

P: Path – Will your planned travel path cross an obvious avalanche path? Will your uphill travel cross any potential avalanche paths? Going straight up Baldy Bowl places you directly on slopes of 30-45° which are considered prime for avalanches.

T: Terrain Trap – Is there a terrain trap including gullies, trees, cliffs, or other features that would make the situation worse if an avalanche were to occur? A slide into a terrain trap will increase the severity of potential injuries or increase the risk of burial even in a small avalanche.

R: Rating – What does today’s avalanche report indicate for the area? Is there a rating of “considerable” or higher? If yes, you will want to reconsider your plans. Go to SoCal Snow for up-to-date reports.

U: Unstable Snow – Have you heard any cracking, collapsing, “whoomping”? These are clear signs of instability and there were reports of cracking sounds before the slide in Baldy Bowl.

TH: Thaw – Has there been recent warming of the snow’s surface due to sun, rain, or air temperature? Warming can increase instability and avalanche risk. The Baldy Bowl gets significant sun and warms quickly. The snow “pinwheels” rolling down the hill are clues to instability.

The items above are out of your control and exist independently of your presence. You decision making should make full use of the objective factors notes, but also needs to account for human factors including:

F: Familiarity – We find comfort in the familiar and may feel safer with trails and routes we know, particularly if we’ve traveled a route dozens of times before, with nothing bad happening.

A: Acceptance – The desire to fit in is powerful and social media can often drive behavior. A desire to “fit in” can influence decision making.

C: Commitment – The desire to meet some objective (i.e., summit the mountain) can be a powerful driver even if the conditions may be questionable.

E: Expert Halo – Someone in your group may have high levels of knowledge or exude confidence that can influence the entire group. This may lead others to follow without raising concerns or questions.

T: Tracks/Scarcity – The idea that a particular resource is scarce (e.g., fresh powder or a snow-covered Mt. Baldy) and must be experienced before the snow is gone can cloud judgement.

S: Social Proof – Previous tracks leading up a slope or a line of other hikers ascending Baldy Bowl can give you a false sense of security (i.e., they are going up, it must be safe). Just because other people are on the same path, does not mean that it is safe and continuing to climb into or through a slope that has just avalanched is high risk.

The above mnemonic, FACETS, can help you recognize human factors that may impact your judgement. These concepts are part of a decision making and risk management framework that, combined with knowledge of weather, terrain, and snowpack, can help you make informed decisions when traveling in avalanche terrain.

The ability to respond to an avalanche accident is dependent on your skills and equipment since SAR resources may take a long time to reach your location and weather may limit helicopter access.

NONE of this is a substitute of obtaining expert training in developing your skills. We strongly recommend AIARE avalanche education programs and Wilderness First Aid courses as a way to build your knowledge and skills.