Lost and found


Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2007

"I was just out for a short hike."

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More often than not, a lot of fatal and near-fatal stories start out with that phrase.

It seems like a counterintuitive notion. Consider the saturation TV news coverage of the Mount Hood drama of last December. Three experienced climbers died. They weren't on a short hike.

But casual hikers are the number one source of searches and rescues throughout the United States.

"It happens all the time, even to top people," said Doug Wesson, director of Juneau Mountain Rescue.

There are countless ways to get into trouble in the mountains or the woods. If you do, experts say, it's best to stay put and start thinking.

Basically, just stop.

"Stay put, stay put and stay put," Wesson said. If worse comes to worst, count on the Search and Rescue cavalry.

Just remember: Rescuers can't save your life if you're already dead.

Be prepared

• Gear up: Don't go into the mountains without a compass, map, signal device, food/energy bars, extra clothing, space blanket, small knife, cell phone, fire starter and common sense.

• Reading list: "Staying Found; Don't Die out There," "GPS Made Easy" "Everyday Wisdom: 1001 Tips for Hikers."

The most common cause of problems is getting disoriented, Wesson said. It can come from a change in light on terrain, an injury, dehydration, the cold, or a sudden whiteout in the high country.

One way to avoid danger is simple: Pay attention to your surroundings. Wesson tells a story of a woman who got lost hiking near the Mendenhall Glacier.

Her story had a happy ending. She went up and over the mountain. She was unprepared. She spent two nights outdoors. She crawled under a log at night and covered herself with skunk cabbage for warmth. It helped keep her alive.

Wesson's crew eventually found her.

"At some point judgment makes the difference," Wesson said. "And the will to live."

Last year was slow for Juneau Mountain Rescue, with only four calls. Some credit goes to the terrible hiking weather. The year before, JMR responded to 20 calls.

Wesson said his crew sees an increase in calls with the long days and the influx of tourists.

The terrain around Juneau is a vertical world. Keeping to the trails will help keep you safe, even if the trails are muddy. Wander off the path, and you might wander off a cliff.

Even on trails, people often lose their way.

If a hiker is lost or needs help, take a page from experienced mountain travelers: Don't push it. Just stay put.

"Call us. We don't mind," Wesson said. "It's better than doing a body recovery."

If you're out of cell phone range, staying put is still a good idea, provided you did the right thing before leaving home.

You did tell somebody where you were headed, right? At least you left a note.

Smart hikers leave copious notes that include possible variations of plan. They say when they'll be back.

Wesson said it's helpful if rescuers know what basic gear a hiker has with them. So note that too.

When searchers come for you, they're looking for clues. If the lost person is a smoker, they look for their brand of butts. A sugar freak? Where's the candy wrapper? Sunflower shells, boot prints or crumbs in the woods all provide clues.

Play Hansel and Gretel if you like.

Don't worry about wicked witches, but do make a marker with a noticeable shape. A rock S-O-S is hard for searchers to miss.

"It's the smallest things," Wesson said. "Even a garbage bag can keep you alive."

Hikers may haul in a backpack full of items, but the most important gear is the brain. If you use a GPS for navigation, then take a compass backup and know how to use both. Even in the summer with 18 hours of daylight, take a headlamp.

Another important bit of orientation: Set the compass declination before leaving home. In the field, if set wrong, a person could wind up 45 degrees off the intended course, Wesson said. That means you could be heading west, thinking you're going north.

With a little preparation, things can go right after they have gone wrong.

A hunter walking on a steep hillside above a cliff slipped and fell. By luck, Wesson said, he landed safely with a tree between his legs and 120 feet of air below his dangling feet.

He called for help. He had GPS to tell rescuers his exact location. He had a signal device, proper clothing and was totally prepared for the worst, Wesson said.

He stayed put in the tree. He survived.

"He was rescue victim of the year," Wesson said.

• Greg Skinner can be reached at greg.skinner@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.

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