Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Kudos to the “First” First Responders

Every time I read a news report about someone being rescued, or protected from harm, it is usually the official emergency responders that get the acknowledgment.

The Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (of which I am a member) gets a mention each time we head out to help someone in the mountains, which is nice, but certainly not essential for me or any of my teammates to make our contribution to the team, and the patient.

What rarely gets reported, in my experience with mountain rescue at least, is what happens in between the start of someone’s bad day and when emergency responders arrive. Someone had to find the person sick, injured or dying, and then report it to the authorities. Mostly, this involves a cell phone call to 911, but it could be a 4 mile run down a trail. For most of us it is human nature to want to avoid such traumatic events. Some do that by turning away, and some do it by trying to help. These are the ways in which we deal with second hand trauma, and in the end it is about minimizing how long such a situation exist, either in our minds, or in reality. Neither is right or wrong.

During the summer of 2012, a young man was found with serious injuries after a fall down a steep rocky gully in four-mile canyon, west of Boulder, CO. Some people hiking in the area heard some unexpected sounds and went to investigate, finding a scene that none of us deserve to see. They did what they could for the young man, calling for help, describing the location and the scene to the 911 dispatchers, guiding rescuers in and performing the basic first aid they could. They helped in a horrific situation, and were part of the emergency response for this mans life, which was sadly lost.

 In 2008, RMR was called to rescue a climber in Eldorado Canyon who had been hit by a falling dinner table-sized rock. Most of the big bones in the legs of this climber were broken. He was still on a ledge 200 feet off the ground. When rescuers arrived there were at least 4 other climbers at his location. One of them had checked that the climbers rope was safe for rescuers to ascend, another did as much first aid as possible, then when rescuers arrived another used his world class climbing skills to set a anchor for the rescue, saving a significant amount of evacuation time. These climbers were the first 30 minutes of emergency response in this injured climbers life and death situation.

In 2011, a woman slid down a snowfield during a summer hike in the Indian Peaks wilderness, arriving at the rock field at the bottom at a speed that did enough damage to require a rescue. For two hours a physician’s assistant, who happened to be hiking nearby, stabilized the woman medically, and comforted her as rescuers approached from one direction and lightening approached from another. The victim was as comfortable as she could have been thanks to the ‘pre-rescuer care’ she received.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned performing mountain rescue, is that the smallest things can count towards saving a life, or at the very least can change the situation so the injured or sick can get to a place of comfort (physical or mental) much quicker. This lesson was cemented through a surprising and very personal event. During a rescue in the Flatirons a few years ago, my entire contribution to the two-hour evacuation was simply talking to someone with a severely broken and deformed ankle. The distress of a middle aged women evaporated as soon as she heard my Australian accent. Now I understand for some, that this accent is not exactly ‘music to the ears’, but it took her back 20 years to another life when she lived in South Eastern Australia. When I would talk she was back walking along a beach, or watching a kangaroo jump through the fields, and with no pain or embarrassment. When I stopped talking, she would feel the pain in her ankle, tear up and apologize for requiring 20 people to carry her off the mountain. Words were enough.

As rescuers we are kept busy with scene, teammate and bystander safety, rigging evacuation systems, and making decisions in stressful environments. In the end we get internal or external recognition of our efforts. We get to debrief rescues within the team, and that camaraderie provides the recognition and motivation we need. It seems essential that we also find a way to recognize those people who form the bridge between the start of a really crappy day for someone, and when emergency responders arrive. On mountain rescue calls, that time difference can be many hours, and without any dramatization, the contribution of those people can be critical.

We should all hope that we don’t have to be the one to hold a persons hand while they wait to be extracted from a crumpled car, and we should hope that we will ever need to hold a persons head still after a fall down a mountain, but please share the word…… if you do end up there, it can literally make the difference. It may be the difference for the immediate well-being of the patient, or it may be the difference for the haste of the subsequent rescue, but in the end it is of immense value, that in my experience doesn't get enough credit. Thanks to all of those people who have formed that bridge between an accident and emergency responders.

Guest Blogger Dan Lack is a Mission Leader and Training Director for Rocky Mountain Rescue and Region Chair for the Rocky Mountain Region. 

  Courage - Commitment - Compassion

     Mountain Rescue Association 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A culture of reporting, and a culture of safety
Guest Blog by the Alpine Near Miss Survey's Cory Jackson 

The Alpine Near-Miss Survey “First 100 Reports” project is underway. We are collecting near-miss reports to support a presentation at ITRS in November, and have been excited about the results so far. But the more reports we receive the better! We are hoping to encourage as many mountain rescue near-miss reports as possible over the next couple of weeks. Read on, and hopefully you’ll find an incentive to do so.

The goal of near-miss research is simply to prevent accidents and injuries. The phrase “near-miss” typically refers to an unintended, unsafe situation that could have resulted in injury but for a fortuitous intervention. Near-miss reporting systems are common safety tools used in high-risk, high-consequence industries such as commercial aviation, nuclear power generation and chemical production. These industries study near-misses because they can outnumber reported accidents at least ten-to-one. Near-misses also share many of the same root causes as reported accidents. Further, near-miss data is useful information that would not be reported but for a specialized reporting system. Finally, analyzing near-misses is proactive rather than reactive: we can identify unsafe trends before they result in injury.

More importantly, positive reporting cultures – those organizational cultures that adopt reporting systems and embrace the value of sharing near-miss reports – are indicative of cultures of safety. Organizational cultures are heavily studied by academics and management consultants, but for our purposes, culture is important simply because is pervades an organization. And because safety cultures are pervasive, they are particularly effective at preventing accidents. Near-miss reporting can facilitate and encourage cultures of safety.

Successful voluntary near-miss reporting systems typically employ platforms that share four attributes.

1. Reporting is anonymous or confidential or both
2. Incidents are reported to an agency that is wholly separate and distinct    from any agency that may govern or regulate the workplace or activity
3. Reports are rapidly published giving timely feedback to reporters
4. Reporting is easy and quick

For these reasons, we designed the Alpine Near-Miss Survey to be a nonprofit, independent entity that is not owned or controlled by an agency that regulates mountain rescuers, mountain guides, or recreational climbers. Second, the online platform and mobile reporting app make reporting simple and fast. And reporters can read their report on the website and see it shared with others within a few days of reporting their incident. We hope that these attributes will make the platform successful, and that it contributes to a culture of safety for those who work and play in the alpine environment.

Sample report from the Survey

While studying near-misses and accidents is serious business, there’s no reason why we can’t have a little fun while we’re getting the system up and running. The Alpine Near-Miss Survey is generously supported by the Petzl Foundation, and the Foundation has agreed to help us give away $1,000.00 in Petzl gear to one reporter that submits a near-miss before October 31. We hope to see that report soon! 

 Guest Bloger Cory Jackson directs and manages the Alpine Near-Miss Survey. He is one of the project’s co-founders, and is involved in all aspects of its development including report review, website and app programming and project fundraising. Cory is also a Member of the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team in Ouray, Colorado. He has worked part-time as a commercial climbing guide and instructor, and has assisted winter and summer Rigging for Rescue seminars. Finally, Cory is an attorney and has a private practice specializing in corporate, nonprofit, and commercial, and trust and estate law in Ouray, Colorado.

        Courage - Commitment - Compassion

     Mountain Rescue Association 

Monday, June 10, 2013

So, what do you do here? Well, we keep ourselves pretty busy. 

Based on the reports submitted to MRA Statistics for 2012, the member teams of the Mountain Rescue Association conducted more than 2900 missions and stand-bys, totaling more than 132,400 volunteer hours that resulted in the rescue of 2506 subjects. 

What kinds of missions do we conduct? Well, 1404 were search missions, 680 were technical rescues, 15 were avalanche missions and 163 were recovery missions.  

We are not just out there doing rescues, education is a large part of the Mountain Rescue Association mission. Our member teams presented more than 10,000 hours of free public education programming. 

Of course the largest part of our time was dedicated to training. Mountain Rescue Association teams held more than 2700 training events totaling more than 207,000 training hours! 

       Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Happy April Fool’s Day to my fellow mountain rescuers!

We all know that mountain rescue is serious business. As rescuers, we work very hard to project the image of ourselves as dedicated, non-paid professionals. And while we always tackle the mission at hand with complete seriousness, I feel that we desperately need to avoid taking OURSELVES too seriously.

I am a member of Colorado’s Alpine Rescue Team. We like to think of ourselves as highly skilled, well-trained non-paid professional rescuers. But if you look closely at the walls of our headquarters (AKA The Shack), tucked in between the official proclamations of thanks from politicians, yellowed newspaper clippings tacked to the wall, and next to photos of our ice-rimed members waving summit flags atop the world’s high peaks- you’ll find a framed photo from the 80s of eight of our members (male and female) mooning the camera at the base of an ice climb. Can you imagine the look on your boss’ face in Corporate America USA, Inc. if you put a photo of eight pairs of (blindingly white) cheeks on the wall of your cubicle for all the world to see?

Probably not.

And look! Next to all the fancy brass and glass plaques from the local Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Red Cross – it’s a gnarled bristlecone pine tree trunk adorned with various trinkets and artifacts including, but not limited to: a chunk of melted aluminum (from a torched snowmobile), broken toy helicopters, busted toy snowmobiles, a cracked aircraft altimeter, a sticker that reads “emergency helicopter exit only” and the tag cut from one of our mission leaders’ Fruit of the Loom white bikini brief underwear. This is our team’s inglorious monument to our failures and embarrassing moments as mountain rescuers. It is lovingly known to Alpine members as the Windy Peak “Aw Shit!” Award, and the trinkets hanging from it are the contributions of past recipients.

This award symbolizes so many things that I truly love about mountain rescue. First and foremost, it is a recognition of our humanity. Our fallibility. It also symbolizes that cherished spirit of true irreverence that runs crookedly through the heart of mountain rescue. I feel that the “Aw Shit!” Award, bestowed each year upon the team member who had the year’s biggest goof-up, is our most important award. (And yes, I am a previous winner – DON’T ask). It serves as our yearly reminder to both honor that irreverent spirit of mountain rescue’s independent nature, and to lighten the hell up. For in mountain rescue, sometimes our sense of humor is the only weapon we have at our disposal when we are faced with tragedy in the backcountry. The temptation to take things too seriously is sometimes a strong one, and one that we must avoid if we hope to remain happy and sane while doing our important work in the place I like to call RescueWorld.

Ernest Hemingway is famous for saying, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” And though mountaineering could be thought of as a sport, it is most certainly not a TEAM sport. It’s a solo endeavor performed by individuals. And so it goes that mountain rescue teams can be thought of as extensions of these free-spirited mountaineering individuals.
Hell, given the fiercely independent nature of most mountain rescue teams in the U.S., it’s a wonder to me that a national organization like the MRA exists at all sometimes.  

For just as the mountains attract many hikers, climbers and mountaineers who march to the beat of a different drummer, so it goes for many of the men and women who sign on to help those having a bad day while enjoying the freedom of the hills.

The very dynamic and eclectic nature of non-paid professional mountain rescue itself often cries out for an eccentric and unconventional approach. It follows that those who are drawn to this type of service for lost or injured hikers, climbers and skiers in the mountains might be a little … off as well.

In fact, the more time you spend around almost any volunteer mountain rescue team in the world, you’ll find that most of us possess (and sometimes flaunt) a strong sense of independent irreverence that you won’t likely find in EMS organizations that are dependent on mill levies or those that are forced to march to the PC beat of a Human Resource (HR) Department.

And God help mountain rescue the day that we have an HR Department.

(Hold on for a moment here while I step up onto my soapbox.) The way I see it, if you can’t go to the mountains or the backcountry and let your hair down once in a while (whether to recreate or to rescue), where else is left? In our politically correct society’s quest to never offend ANYONE, we’ve taken a lot of fun away from EVERYONE. (OK, sorry about that, I’m stepping back down now.)

In non-paid professional mountain rescue, this kind of financial and institutional independence is essential to the survival of each and every volunteer organization. As the Langdale-Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team (from the Lake District in Britain) says on their website, “Self-funding means freedom - to experiment, to acquire the best equipment for the job, freedom from bureaucratic interference and cost-cutting to which so many public services have fallen victim, and freedom to enjoy the team spirit which rewards and respects initiative and competence in a way which binds and disciplines a team to the ultimate benefit of all.”

So just who are these people who dedicate and donate so much of their time and effort “that other might live”? And what motivates them?

I’ve noticed two distinct personality traits that seem to be present in the folks who dedicate years of their life in service to mountain rescue. 

First of all, those who give that much of their lives to mountain rescue simply love helping people.Though a love of the backcountry and a deep respect for the awesome might of nature are important traits found in the mountain rescuer, it is their obsessive desire to help their fellow human beings that keeps the career mountain rescuer going year after year after year. After all, it is not unusual for most mountain rescue teams to go a couple of months with absolutely no calls, and if you joined mountain rescue strictly for the thrills, this is when you are likely to discover that you’d rather be climbing or skiing than sitting through yet another classroom presentation on line search techniques. From what I’ve seen, this is why adrenaline junkies make for terrible rescuers. These folks eventually discover that there’s a lot of standing around going on in mountain rescue, and that they’d rather be out recreating than being stuck back at Operations shuffling around in a parking lot inhaling diesel fumes from the rescue truck while waiting for a field assignment.

Secondly, career mountain rescuers have a screw loose-and I say that with the utmost respect. Professional mountain rescue has come a long way since its humble beginnings across the pond. But even with all the modernization of mountain rescue techniques and tools – and the equally modern concept of risk management – it is still a dangerous undertaking at times. It follows that those willing put themselves at risk for total strangers, year after year, with no financial reward or loaded gun to their head, are cut from a different cloth.

Like the bumper sticker says, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.”

Or, as Joseph Conrad once said, “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.” 

And so it goes for the life in the mountains, dedicated to mountain rescue. 

In closing, I urge my mountain rescue comrades to savor the one day of the year that you are not only permitted-but encouraged- to play the fool. To let your freak flag fly.
So I say to my fellow mountain rescuers, remember to lighten the hell up-and may you always be a little…off.

Tom Wood is a 15-year veteran of the Alpine Rescue Team in Evergreen, CO and works as the Training Manager for Vertical Rescue Solutions by PMI. The preceding post contains material from his upcoming memoir: “Trading Steel for Stone: Tales of a Rustbelt Refugee Turned Rocky Mountain Rescuer”. This post does not reflect the opinions of the ART, the MRA, PMI or-quite possibly- anyone else, for that matter.

And fellow mountain rescuers-feel free to comment below and share your own rescue team’s odd or unique characters, traditions or awards.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What to do if You Get Lost

Imagine... it's a beautiful day. You've taken your camera and headed out for a short hike away from your campsite. The wild flowers are compelling and you wander about aimlessly for a few hours. Two rolls of film later, you begin to head back for camp. Suddenly, nothing looks familiar. You look around for a while, trying to find something, anything, that looks familiar. As dusk approaches, your heart beats faster and you become very anxious. You have nothing but your camera and two spent rolls of film and without a flashlight, it will be impossible to find your way back. Your head sweats and your heart pounds feverishly as you begin to feel the panic associated with being lost

Discovering you are lost in the backcountry can be a frightening experience. This feeling can be compounded by the five basic fears: that of being alone, darkness, animals, suffering and of course death.

At the moment you realize you are lost, the most important thing you can do is S.T.O.P. (Sit, Think, Observe and Plan). Do not run off frantically looking for a way out. Rather, stop and assess your situation! Use your head, not your feet. At this point your brain is your most important piece of survival gear. The first ten minutes of being lost are when most search fatalities make their deadly mistake.

Whatever you do, don't panic. In most situations you can survive 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly. Rest assured that by  remaining calm and relaxed, your chances of survival, which are quite good already, have increased by 50 percent. Your primary goal now should be to stay alive, not to find your way out. Help will be on the way soon after you are reported missing. Sheltering the body and
conserving energy is your greatest concern right now.

Once you determine you are lost, your actions during the first few minutes could play a significant role in your survival. 

Get Loud!!!
When you first discover that you are lost, stay where you are. Yell or blow a whistle 3 times to signal your party or any others within earshot (a whistle will carry farther than your voice and requires less energy). Wait several seconds, then turn 90 degrees and try again. Do so several times in every direction. If you have no whistle, yell "HELP" rather than a friend's name. Doing so will help assure that your distress call is not ignored.

If someone yells back, let him or her come to you. Rock walls and valleys play strange tricks with echoes and you may lose your potential rescuers by attempting to locate them. In addition, your rescuers are most likely a group of people, so they will have a better chance of finding you than vice-versa.

If you do hear someone yell back. No matter how faint his or her yell may be, stay put and keep yelling. They may sound far away only because they are facing away from you and have not yet ascertained from where you are yelling. If you are near a loud stream, move away before yelling or whistling for help. Be certain to mark your way back to the stream, however, as you may want to follow that stream later if your calls go unanswered. The same is true for windy areas where a howling gust can be quite loud. Remember, someone may hear your call at times when you cannot hear his or her reply, especially in windy areas. Do not give up yelling or whistling simply because a reply is not heard.

Stay Put
When setting up a search, mountain rescue teams follow certain priorities and make certain assumptions about their subjects. These assumptions are based on behavior patterns of lost subjects. An understanding of these assumptions may help guide you to a place that is searched early. The first members of a search party are quickly dispatched to the point at which the subject was last seen (strangely enough, referred to as the "point last seen "). They follow trails and streams near this last seen point, yelling the subject's name and blowing whistles. This simple fact is reason enough to just sit still and wait for rescuers to find you. Unfortunately, nobody does. Less than 30% of lost persons are found within one mile of the last seen point. Additional rescuers search areas of high probability near the last seen point. Statistics on behavioral patterns of lost hikers have shown that 88% walk downhill when lost, 73% find and follow a trail or path and 82% are found in open areas.
Based on these facts, field teams often search downhill from the last seen point before spreading the search out in other directions.

Air searchers are generally used soon after you are reported missing and weather permits flying. Plan to stay near open areas and be ready with signals.

Remember, your brain is your most important piece of survival gear. Keeping your cool and doing the right things in the first ten minutes will greatly increase your chances of a quick and uneventful rescue! 

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Let Others Know

One important rule too often forgotten is to let others know exactly where you are going, with whom and when you can be expected back. I hate to sound maternal, but search and rescue teams often spend hours driving around on back roads looking for a subject's vehicle before they know where to enter the field to begin a search. 

By letting someone know EXACTLY where you intend to go, when you expect to return and where your vehicle will be parked, you can eliminate the possibility of searchers having no idea of where to look. Should your plans change in route to your destination, stop and notify that person of your new itinerary. In addition, if you leave pertinent information on the dash of your car (e.g. name and phone number of your contact in town, location of travel/campsite and so on) search teams will have a very timely idea of your plans. Otherwise, search teams can be of little assistance when all that is known is that you "went camping somewhere in the Gore Range."

Whenever possible, utilize trail head and summit check-in logs. These generally exist at most popular National Forest trail heads and atop many popular mountain summits.

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association