THE BUZZ: How to get ‘unlost’ in the wild

By on July 14, 2015

Survival is often not about what’s in your backpack, but what’s in your head

Father Eric Andrews-Sharer with rescued daughters Kelsi, Megan and Erin (Photo: andrews-sharer family)

Father Eric Andrews-Sharer with rescued daughters Kelsi, Megan and Erin (Photo: andrews-sharer family)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The Andrews-Sharer sisters ordeal last week caused a major search party that eventually led to their safe extraction from the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Even while doing some things right, the women made some key mistakes. The best defense against getting lost and triggering a rescue from Teton County Search and Rescue (TCSAR) is never being lost in the first place. But when the stars align and GPS satellites don’t, backcountry experts have a few tips to ensure you don’t return to your loved ones in a body bag.

First things first

The most important guarantee to a safe return from a day hike or a weekend backpacking trip is proper planning. Research the area you want to recreate in. Know the landmarks. Note the bodies of water that may be in the area. Springs are a source of drinking water. What creeks run in what direction? In mountain country like ours, travel is often dictated by drainages. What nearby peaks will you use as your visual guide to orient yourself?

In the case of the Andrews-Sharer sisters, the trio made the biggest error of any backcountry traveler: No one knew where they were going. Always tell someone where you are going and when you should be expected to get back. Leave a note under your windshield at the trailhead explaining when you went in, in what direction and when you plan to return.

It’s a big world outside our backdoor. Reducing the search area for TCSAR is one of the most helpful things you can do for them if they have to come for you. Search and Rescue coordinator Jessica King says the most helpful things you can do happen before you even tie the laces on your hiking shoes.

“Have a plan before you go,” King says. “Teton County Search and Rescue really encourages people to know a lot of information about where [they] will be going and why. Are you choosing the right route for your capabilities? What does the weather look like? Obviously, tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back and, most importantly, when is it time to call for help?”

King added that packing the “big six” is key. Water, food, shelter, a first aid kit, a light source and fire starter are the basic elements everyone should have when heading into the hills. The more search teams know about where you likely are, the more they can reduce their search area and increase the probability of finding you quickly.

In the case of the Andrews-Sharer sisters, their vehicle at the Swift Creek trailhead initially pointed searchers to the area east of that location. Shoal Falls is a popular hiker destination. Teams pounded that area until more information came in. The eyewitness sighting by an outfitter was crucial in redirecting the search helicopter but by then, the TCSAR team was receiving other indications the lost women were in the area of the Horse Creek/Little Horse Creek drainages.

“They were apparently looking for something a little off the beaten path, which is common in that area,” King said. “They were wanting to avoid crowds, I guess, and had gone in an area with few trails to explore something a little different.”

The frightening realization you are hopelessly lost

Getting lost is rarely an “aha” moment. It’s a process of self-denial slowly giving way to reality. When you know you are lost, experts say that panic will kill you quicker than bear attacks or starvation. Use your head, not your legs. The acronym to remember is STOP (Sit, Think, Observe and Plan). Author Laurence Gonzales, who wrote “Deep Survival,” puts it this way: Be here now. Accept you are lost in the wild. Make smart decisions.

“Keep your cool,” King advised. “Stay calm. Acknowledge your predicament. Assess the situation. Don’t make things worse. Are you injured? Are you in a relatively safe place? Your first priority should be your safety.”

If you are in good heath and have a general idea of the area you are in, self-rescue might be an option. The chances of hiking yourself out are greater if you have a map or GPS, or have studied the area you are in beforehand. The general rule of traveling downstream to get to civilization is usually sound but in the rugged backcountry of places like the Gros Ventre Wilderness where the Andrews-Sharer sisters were lost, heading out might not always work.

“There are really no hard and fast rules,” King said. “If you are out there with no map or compass, and no knowledge of how to handle yourself, it’s probably best to stay put. It’s really important to look at a map before you go. Not just the trails you plan to be on but nearby routes you may get sucked into. There are a lot of drainages in Teton County that all look very similar.”

Gaining elevation may be the right course for a few reasons. If you have a cell phone but can’t get a signal, being on top of the highest point might help. Getting to a ridge top will also enable you to survey the land and make a plan. At the very least, if you plan on staying put and waiting for rescue, King suggests you position yourself high and in the open.

How to get spotted

“Wearing bright colored clothing – white or hunter orange is helpful,” King said. “These colors, especially white, don’t occur in nature around here very often. You will stand out. If you have the ability to make a fire, smoke is great. You can see smoke for many miles from the ground or from the air. A signal mirror is also useful. For air searches, if you can create anything manmade, even putting two downed trees at a right angle to make an ‘L’ or an ‘X,’ because they don’t often occur in nature, are easily spotted by air searchers.”

Anatomy of a search

After receiving word from dispatch, the TCSAR advisory board quickly assembles to begin forming a picture of what they are looking at. An Incident Command (IC) center is established – in the case of last week’s operation, that was at the Search and Rescue building. Sheriff Jim Whalen was tapped as incident commander and managers began pulling maps of the area.

Search areas are identified and weighted with a probability of detection formula. Searchers are dispatched. SAR leaders decided to airlift some “runners” to the top of ridges in order to save them a 10-mile hike in. They knew they would need an aircraft to aid in the search for two reasons: the women had been missing for several days and could be injured and the search terrain was vast and rugged.

Once spotted, helicopter pilots will make it evident they have visual contact with rescuees. They may make eye contact if possible or circle the area several times. If the landing zone is safe and the aircraft has room, pilots will extract victims immediately. If not, a SAR member might be dropped off to provide first aid or directions on where to go to get picked up. Last week, the helicopter pilot was able to pick up the three lost hikers immediately.

Once the mission is complete, TCSAR is vigilant in making sure they get their responders out of the backcountry safely.

“The first thing we do at IC is confirm 100 percent we have found the missing people and they are the missing people we were looking for,” King said. “Once we have that, we communicate to our teams that the operation has concluded. We wait for confirmation from everyone as to what they plan to do. Some may turnaround and hike out. Some might say, ‘I’m really deep in here, can you pick me up?’ Or others might say they are coming out on a different trail and need a ride from another trailhead.”

About Jake Nichols

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