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Beyond the beacon: Thoughts and gear for a safe backcountry experience

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Staying warm next to a fire while the team considers the steps to take to get out of the backcountry on Jan. 4. PHOTO COURTESY OF GNFAC

By Dave Zinn EBS Contributor

Accidents happen, but they had not happened to me in any significant way until this year. While I do not feel youthfully invincible, I have a confidence built from many years working as a professional rescuer in the mountains. But there I was on Jan. 4, 2022, sitting in the snow with a dislocated shoulder. I was unable to reduce it and the pain severely limited movement and hampered any ability to ride or self-rescue. Here is some of the gear, training and thought processes that stacked the chips in our favor.

At the avalanche center, we emphasize that every member of your group should have a beacon, shovel and probe along with the training to utilize them efficiently in case of an avalanche. However, many backcountry incidents don’t involve avalanches and even minor injuries can quickly complicate a simple day of mountain travel. 

After my accident, walking or riding a snowmobile was a challenge, and painkillers and a couple of triangle bandages were invaluable resources. Always carry a good first aid kit that is light and includes supplies to address life threatening emergencies and stabilize common injuries. A Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder class prepares you to put this gear to work.

Do not forget the details of your medical training. Sick and injured patients get cold easily and getting cold exacerbates everything. After my accident, puffy expedition mittens with hand warmers went on and a giant down coat went over everything I was already wearing. Mugs of hot cider provided simple sugars to stoke the internal fire and an external bonfire made from green wood roared to life when a flare—along with a bit of gasoline—was thrown into the mix. 

A tarp suspended by parachute cord kept the wind off and served as an emergency toboggan to help move me into the flats. Many of these items had been in our emergency kits for years without being used but were effectively employed during the rescue. None of these supplies would have made for a comfortable night out, but it would have been survivable if we had not been able to evacuate that afternoon. 

Our proficiency and desire for self-sufficiency in the mountains could have led us to not call for backup. I certainly did not want to get rescued and we openly asked, “How can we get ourselves out of here.” 

Wisely, we activated local search and rescue in part because we were in fact riding with several members of the Fremont County Idaho Search and Rescue Team at the time. We need confidence to successfully navigate through the mountains and we need humility to know when to ask for help. An organized rescue takes time to mobilize and arrive, and if you are able to sort out your own emergency they can be turned around. Calling them early facilitated a timely evacuation and minimized the chances that we would have had to spend the night in the backcountry.

Ultimately, I am lucky to be on the road to healing and have every intention of being back in the mountains soon. Integrate some of these lessons into your backcountry travel plans and we hope the gear and the training will be a backup you never have to use. Finally, thank you to the members of the Fremont County Idaho Search and Rescue Team specifically and search and rescue volunteers in general. We are lucky that you have our backs.

Dave Zinn is an Avalanche Forecaster for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. He has been with GNFAC since 2019 and has eleven years of ski patrol experience at Bridger Bowl and the Yellowstone Club.

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