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. 

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.

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!

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.


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 Ten 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 Ten 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.

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.