Self-Rescue and Rescue Preparation
This guide was generated by crown-sourcing information from rescue victims and rescue professionals (Air National Guard Pararescue Jumpers, PJs). Feedback fell naturally into the categories below.
Self-rescue and Prevention
The rescue professionals emphasize that your primary responsibility is to be able to self rescue. From Daryl Miller, legendary Denali Mountaineering Ranger:
- Everyone has a personal responsibility to maintain self-sufficiency in the wilderness and should always base decisions on getting back on their own.
- Your best resource is the ability to think in a controlled manner when a life-threatening crisis is happening.
- Prevention, not treatment, is what ultimately will save your life in the wilderness. There is a notable difference between a gamble and a calculated risk. A calculated risk considers all the odds, justifies the risk, and then makes an intelligent decision based on conservative judgment. A gamble is something over which you have no control and the outcome is just a roll of the dice.
- You cannot make intelligent decisions in the wilderness if you do not understand the risks.
- Never give up; the will to live is a valuable asset. Sometimes people perish simply because they fall short on perseverance.
- As a rule, if you die in the wilderness you made a mistake; careless judgment has a sharp learning curve.
- Wilderness rescues in Alaska are often dangerous to the rescuers and always weather-contingent.
- People do not realize the devastating impact that their accidents have on friends and loved ones.
- The prerequisite to misadventure is the belief that you are invincible or that the wilderness cares about you.
The Denali 60%
Daryl Miller shared a “60% left in the tank” guideline for guides and rescue professionals. The idea is to make sure you have 60% left in reserve in anticipation of needing to perform a high-exertion rescue. I like applying this to my exertion level on personal trips. If I’m constantly running at 90% exposure, a light accident, broken-binding or paddle, could be disastrous. In kayaking terms, this is “save some for the swim,” meaning, don’t get to 100% exhaustion trying to roll out of a hole, leaving you with no reserves for whatever comes next.
The Trip Plan
“Things we did right… a point of contact before going into the backcountry that understood how to reach help when we inReached them.” -Heather
Create a document with details about your trip. I use a shared Google Drive folder (Brooks Range example). The folder includes:
- Route map with alternatives, cruxes, go/no-go obstacles, bail outs.
- Expected timeline and actions to take. For example, when is a lack of communication expected, alarming, an emergency? When should the in-town contact charter a flight to get eyes in the sky?
- Communication equipment you will have and how you can be reached
- Emergency contacts/instructions
- Don’t rely on electronics, carry backups
- Equipment description, type/amount/color of: tent/shelter, sleeping system, clothing, boat, food, fuel, meds, etc.
The mostly helpful thing by far was to have picked competent knowledgeable partners who were able to stay calm, quickly problem solve and coordinate my rescue… this makes me want to improve my personal rescue-training skills so I can also be a solid partner for others as well.” -Katie
Know your group:
- Group fitness
- Experience in given terrain
- Tolerance to adverse conditions
- Will they remain calm?
- Can they problem-solve?
- Can they coordinate a rescue?
“People that have communication, and with reliable voice, or a device that sends accurate GPS coordinates, tend to be winners.” (PJ)
In a nutshell, on remote trips we carry multiple inReach SE devices, and a satellite phone if we can find one to borrow.
In order of effectiveness:
“I can read a lot about the situation just from hearing the tone of the caller.” (PJ)
I wanted to use spotty coverage and dropped calls to justify not carrying a sat phone, but the rescue professionals are very clear about the value of voice.
Two-way satellite text communication (inReach, SPOT)
Two-way messaging adds huge value in rescue avoidance or coordination. I know of at least 10 inReaches that failed in the field, so we carry more than one for redundancy. Hopefully the builds will improve in the hands of Garmin. The inReach DE (with more functional GPS) has a terrible reputation as a GPS unit (battery hog, slow, prehistoric interface).
One-way SOS buttons (inReach, SPOT and EPIRBs)
Relying on an SOS button for safety is risky and irresponsible. Rescue professionals have to guess everything about the scenario, which is inefficient and can put the rescuers at risk. See the “Pushing the SOS Button” below.
Iridium vs. Global Star
Iridium (sat phone and inReach) has better coverage than Global Star (SPOT) in Alaska
Other Emergency Equipment
- Emergency blanket
- Dry bag. One rescue victim thought that simply having clothes in a dry bag might have made a self-rescue possible.
- Pain meds
As the In-town Contact…
When people are overdue and there is no communication:
- Review the trip plan. A good trip plan should have a few thresholds for time/no comm (“a little strange”, “worrying”, “get eyes in the sky”, “call 911”).
- Get eyes in the sky, Alaska flight operators
- Alert authorities to potential need for rescue, 911
When there is communication:
- Create a point of contact
- Collect as much detail as possible to be conveyed to rescue professionals
- Coordinate/inform, but be aware of redundant efforts and mis-communications
- When possible, rescue professionals prefer to communicate directly with the involved party
As the victim party…
“Things we did right… being OK with asking for help almost immediately.” -Katie
- Use your in-town contact
- Convey details about the scenario, see the Communication section below
- Anticipate (battery life) communicating directly with rescuers
- Call the nearest State Trooper Post (Alaska State Troopers, 911 from a sat phone goes to Texas)
“Simple terminology can really effect a rescue operation. I’m always looking for some key information that will help me decide how to carry out a mission and what to bring.” (PJ)
Unknown variables delay the rescue process. Convey details about the situation:
- Nature of the emergency
- Injuries (life-threatening?)
- Time window
- Terrain/Landing zones
- Special equipment the rescuers might need (e.g., glacier gear, hoist)
The Rescue Process
Pushing the SOS Button
“If somebody hits the SOS button don’t be surprised if it takes up to 24hrs to see a helicopter.” (PJ)
- GEOS Alliance → local first-responder assets → law enforcement and/or medical response teams (may or may not be able to help) AND contact numbers on device account
- If you have a two-way device, GEOS will then contact you for more details
- Always maintain accurate account information associated with your device and service.
- Understand how your primary emergency contact factors into a successful rescue and provide them with as much information as possible about your trip, its members and any other critical details.
- Before you venture into an area, research the first response assets allocated to that area.
- Know who will come if needed and how long it will take them to reach you.
911 / Rescue Coordination Center
“At the end of the day always call 911 in an emergency- not a PJ or a friend or the RCC….call those people after the SOS has been activated.” (PJ)
- 911 is the call to make, not RCC
- From a sat phone, call the nearest State Troopers Post (Alaska State Troopers) (911 from a sat phone goes to Texas)
- RCC: 907-551-7230 (Alaska), 1-800-420-7230
- Hierarchy: 911 → RCC → private assets (e.g., LifeMed) → municipal → State (Troopers) → Federal (ANG PJs)
- The State Troopers decide when to call the PJs: “life-threatening injury, hoist, no landing zone”
- For accidents in the National Park, NPS tries to utilize NPS assets first. If not sufficient, they can contract the PJs.