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.

Plan

As a result of recent events, we’d like to remind people about safety in the mountains. While hiking is a rewarding activity, please remember that you are responsible for your own safety. Be cautious if you are relying on others.

We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a plan. This includes establishing a turn-around time, knowing the weather forecast, knowing the terrain statistics (mileage, elevation gain, and conditions), and leaving your trip itinerary with someone at home.

A basic itinerary includes:
– Who you’re going with and contact numbers
– Trailhead / starting point
– Destination
– Start date and time
– Estimated end date and time
– Emergency contact information

It’s important to let someone reliable know what to do if you don’t return for some reason. We encourage you to set a time for your contact to call for help that will give you some margin if you are running a bit late. If you are overdue and have the ability to send a message to your contact, please let them know you are safe to avoid them calling for help unnecessarily.

Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has a hiking plan that you can print and fill out. If you know the phone numbers for the local Sheriff station or other agency, such as Forest Service or National Park Service, putting it on the form can help your contact person get in touch with the right people. If someone is missing, you do NOT need to wait 24 hours, but your contact will need to be clear their call is for a missing hiker. If in doubt, call 9-1-1.

While planning a trip with a group, ask yourself if the group is made up of people you know and can trust. Regardless of whether you’re hiking with friends or strangers, the Team recommends keeping the group together or establishing a plan to periodically check in at key points. Assign a strong and experienced hiker as the “sweep” who will make sure no one is left behind. If someone cannot continue, have someone go back with them or have them wait at a spot you will pass on your way out. Once you return to your cars or homes, check in with everyone to make sure no one is missing. If someone hasn’t returned, consider reporting someone missing.

If you are hiking on your own and are unfamiliar with the trail, treat information from social media sources with caution. Advice offered over the internet should be evaluated carefully since you may not know the source or its reliability. Consider asking yourself if the hike is reasonable based on your experience, equipment, and potential hazards. While physical fitness is important, a fit person can easily get in “over their heads” if they lack essential skills and equipment – are you prepared for this?

Lastly, the amount of “insurance” you need will be up to you, but you should ask and answer a couple of basic questions:
– What do you need to prevent an emergency or respond to an emergency should one occur?
– What do you need to safely spend an unplanned night (or two) outside?

The Team has a printable checklist for your Eleven Essentials. While you may not need an extensive array of items from the list, a basic set should be in your pack. Storing items in small, waterproof stuff sacks or bag is convenient and will allow you to move them between packs.

Hiking can be easy or it can be tough. Hikers get in trouble because they try to do something they aren’t prepared to do. If you are separated from your group or are lost on your own, try to stay in a safe place, keep warm, and stay put.

The Eleven Essentials

The Ten Essentials list was created in the 1930s by The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based organization for climbers and outdoor adventurers, to help people respond positively to an accident or emergency and safely spend a night (or more) outside. While we know taking a daypack on a 1.5 mile hike sounds absurd, we believe it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

PPE: mask, hand sanitizer, trash bag for used PPE

Most of the trails in Sierra Madre are narrow and do not allow hikers to pass with a 6′ gap between. To safely pass other hikes and reduce the spread of COVID-19, we ask everyone to carry masks at the very least.

Navigation: map, compass, GPS, altimeter, personal locator beacon (PLB), satellite messenger

A GPS, personal locator beacon, and satellite messenger are all useful to have, but having a paper map can go a long way when electronics have low battery. A map of the area you’re travelling in and a compass are recommended. At minimum, you should be able to point out the trail you’re on, along with landmarks (trail junctions, water crossings, etc.) you’re passing.
A compass with map-reading knowledge is a vital tool if you’re disoriented in the backcountry. Navigating by map and compass takes practice, but it’s a great skill to have. They do not rely on batteries and newer compass models have sighting mirrors, which can be used to reflect light at a helicopter during an emergency.

Sun Protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothing, sunscreen, chapstick

Sunglasses, sun-protective clothing, and sunscreen can prevent short term sunburn and snow blindness, as well as long term premature skin aging, skin cancer, and cataracts. Sun-protective clothing is an effective way of blocking UV rays without slathering sunscreen on.

Light: headlamp, extra batteries, spare headlamp

Headlamps are the preferred source of light, compared to flashlights, as they allow you to be hands free and won’t drain the battery on your phone. Extra batteries in your spare headlamp are always useful to have on you – this is especially useful when your initial headlamp doesn’t work.

First Aid Supplies: treatment for blisters, adhesive bandages, gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, pain medication, pen, paper, and gloves.

Medical kits are going to be determined by the duration of the trip, along with the number of people that are involved. They include treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages, gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, pain medication, pen, paper, and gloves.

Fire: waterproof matches, lighter, tinder, dry lint

Storm/wind proof matches and a lighter are useful to have. A wad of dryer lint makes a great fire starter and won’t cost you anything! For outings where firewood isn’t available or fire danger is high, a stove is recommended as an emergency heat source.

Repair Kit & Tools: knife, duct tape, cord, safety pins, fabric repair kit, zip-ties

Knives are useful for repairs, food preparation, first aid, and other emergency needs. A small gear repair kit can get you out of a bind in the backcountry.

Clothing: layer of underwear (top and bottoms), beanie/balaclava, extra pair of socks, gloves, and jacket.

Conditions can turn cold and wet unexpectedly, so consider taking an additional layer or two for an unplanned night out.

Food: granola, jerky, nuts, candy, dried fruit, energy blocks

Pack enough food for an extra day and night in the mountains. Granola, jerky nuts, candy, dried fruit, and energy blocks are all great options. They’re lightweight an don’t require a stove and fuel.

Water: 32oz bottle, water filter, iodine tablets

Each person needs to carry a bottle of water; 16oz of water is NOT enough! Most people need about 16oz of water per hour during moderate activity in moderate temperatures. 32oz of water is the bare minimum that should be carried along with a water filter or iodine tablets to treat water.

Emergency shelter: light emergency bivy, emergency shelter, tarp, extra-large trash bag

Emergency shelters will protect you from wind and rain. A light emergency bivy, space blanket, or even an extra-large trash bag will help retain some heat overnight.

To help ensure all Essentials are packed, you can download a printable checklist here.

Missing Hiker Found Alive and Well After 7 Days

On Saturday June 22nd, 73 year old Eugene Jo went hiking out of the Three Points trailhead in the San Gabriel Mountains with 6 other hikers. Around 3:00 pm Jo became separated from the group. He was found 1 week later on Saturday June 29th after a massive search effort by search and rescue teams from across California. 

The Montrose Search and Rescue Team received a report of a missing hiker around 7:00 pm on Saturday June 22nd. As they began their search, the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team and the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team were called to assist. Field teams searched the area through the night, watching the sunrise on their assignments.

On Sunday, fresh searchers from 7 of Los Angeles County’s search and rescue teams deployed, and search assignments expanded. In the daylight they searched the trails in the Mt Waterman area, as well as off trail areas near where Jo’s hiking group had lunch. On Monday June 24th teams throughout California were called to join the search.

In the end, 25 teams responded from 10 counties including teams as far away as Marin and San Diego counties. Approximately 3,200 acres were searched by 327 searchers alongside LA Search Dogs, Special Enforcement Bureau’s Unmanned Aircraft System, LA Sheriff’s Department and LA County Fire Department helicopters.

On Saturday June 29th over 75 searchers deployed into the field. That morning Jo was located deep in Devil’s Canyon by a field team from the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team. Jo was extracted by Air Rescue 5 and taken to Huntington Memorial Hospital where he was released later the same day.  

Jo’s family said that he would not give up. They were correct. Jo drank stream water, ate plants and tried to signal helicopters with his red vest. He was deep in thick brush in a huge search area though so he wasn’t located until a ground team got close to him and heard his response to their voices. 

The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team (SMSR) fielded 23 team members who logged over 650 hours between time spent in the field and assisting the Montrose Search and Rescue Team with overhead management of the operation. In large scale searches Incident Management Teams play a critical role. Throughout the day, personnel in the command post manage radio communication with field teams, interview the friends and family, interact with the media, debrief search teams, and processes GPS track logs. Based on information from each days’ search assignments and new information, the Planning Section works through the night to determine where teams will search the next day. 

As for the reactions when Jo was located, one SMSR team member reported, “I was elated when the radio call came in,” and another member shared that, “there were smiles, hugs, and tears of joy.” For now team members have returned home to wash off the dirt, tend to their bruises, and catch up on some much needed sleep. For SMSR it was a week spent in the service of their motto, “Anywhere in the wilderness someone needs help. . .”