Snowboard (skier) Survival Preparation

I have been snowboarding since I was about 14. Thankfully during this time I have not had many emergency situations. I am now 33 years old and have recently given thought to what would happen if I got myself into a sticky situation. This was prompted by a few separate cases of lost snowboarders. Granted most of the scenarios on the ski hill are relatively safe, it is when one goes off the beaten trail that things begin to get dangerous.

Snowboard or Skier Survival Preparation

A doctor and his fiance were planning on doing an out of bounds trail at my local area, the big Tesuque bowl. I'm unclear if this was their first attempt at this or if they had done it before. The trail basically involves hiking up a ridge about 600 feet in elevation and then dropping in to a bowl that drains down onto the road that leads up to the ski area. It is a common trail at the ski area, it is however out of bounds and not patrolled. Once hiked up to the appropriate elevation you ride down a ridge and then drop in to the west side. Note I said ridge, if you go down the east side of the ridge you are looking at about 15 minutes of the most perfect untouched powder of your life. However there is no way out and it does not go down to a road, it goes down to a river that eventually ends up in the town after about a 20 mile hike.

To further compound the situation the weather report that the pair received was erroneous. I knew that day that it was going to snow for 2 days, the information they received was that there would be light flurries.

Long story short, they went down the wrong side of the ridge, realized they were at the bottom of the wrong side of the mountain and the storm started to come in right about this same time. Luckily one of the pair had some training in snow survival and they built a snow cave and hunkered down. I believe it is at this time they used the cell phone to call for help. The next day with the storm still raging they hiked to the top of the ridge and built another snow cave and hunkered down for the night. The search and rescue was now actively searching for them but the weather was bad and they were searching in the wrong area. After 3 days the storm broke and they were rescued, however, the helicopter did pass them by 3 times.

So lets analyze this scenario:

What they did wrong:

  • Bad weather report. Although a sweet dump was welcomed, the prediction of light flurry's was far from the reality of a 2 day storm that dumps 2 feet of fresh. Its great to snowboard on but its very difficult to hike in, even harder to survive in, almost impossible to build a fire in.
  • No knowledge of the out of bounds area. I have done this trail in my lifetime possibly 200 times. I have never made the mistake of taking the wrong ridge, although I have looked at it and thought of doing it many times. There is also a drainage river on the west face that if you don't pay attention to you end up in, forces you to hike out. This usually takes about 40 minutes to get to a point where you can resume the normal trail. But the point here is that the couple really didn't know where they were going .
  • Unable to adequately describe their location to the SAR (Search and Rescue). This wasted possibly an entire day. But when your lost and its white out conditions its tough.
  • No signaling devices, when the helicopters finally did locate them they passed right over head 3 times before spotting them.

What they did right:

  • They were able to call for assistance and did so early on.
  • They were fairly well equipped, shovel, water, food and decent clothing.
  • They were knowledgeable about winter survival.
  • Kept their head straight, they mentally were able to keep it together, they stopped and waited, conserving energy and resources.

We can agree that going back country is what placed the two in peril. Had they been in bounds there is no way they would have been seriously lost (at least at this, and most ski areas). So the second you go out of bounds a red flag should go off, at this point your survival gear should be in place.

[T]here is the second story, almost around the same time.

Sadly we don't know the story of this pair. Wolf Creek is a ski area on the border of Colorado and New Mexico. It has been known to be the ski area that gets the most snow in Colorado. I think they might be somewhere on the east side of the mountain, it has areas where the snow is very deep and I have personally gotten stuck in some really deep snow there. It was snowing pretty hard, and there was high probability of avalanches in the area.

There is a hike up to Alberta peak and then a very nice ride down some good pow. I really don't know what is on the backside of the mountain but if you were to go down that way it would be a very very long hike back up.

Lets analyze this scenario:

What They did wrong:

Unknown, did they go out of bounds? It could have also been some sort of avalanche related problem. I think they got stuck somewhere, were unable to contact the outside world and request help. This is what saved the first couple from possibly the same fate. This ski area is far more remote and it is easier to get somewhere that could be considered back country.

In my opinion some sort of communication device would have helped these 2, I carry a pretty high tech radio and I generally spend extra time and program in some frequencies depending on where I am going.

Having said this, I think that any method of communication would have helped. Cell phone coverage is spotty at best, the pair probably had a cell phone but didn't use it. I would suggest knowing where the cell phone works and doesn't. Having said this if your cell phone is not getting coverage, turn it off. Save the battery you might be able to maneuver yourself to a high point turn it back on and try again.

Frs (family radio service) radios, these cheap radios are turning up all over the market, they are actually UHF (Ultra High Frequency) FM radios limited to 1 watt of transmit power. You can do allot with this, I use my radio with 5 watts to talk to a station that is about 65 miles away. Also the fact that many families use these increases the odds that someone is listening, more on this later.

3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food. This is the general rule, however since shelter is basically an extension of your clothing we can count clothing as a decent form of shelter possibly tripling that figure. An interesting side note on the first of the rule of 3. 3 minutes without air, this doesn't seem applicable when you apply it to a snowboarding situation. You are not planning on going swimming right? Wrong, if you are trapped under the snow by an avalanche you essentially have about 20 minutes of air. There is also the dreaded tree well, the area of snow around pine trees where there is less snow than further away from the trees. There have been 2 deaths recently in Oregon from people falling face forward into these tree wells. I don't have much advice for this scenario aside from the fact that you have roughly three minutes to get yourself out.

On to the second item, 3 hours without shelter. I noted earlier that your clothing can be considered shelter, so lets say with a fairly well equipped snowboard outfit you can last maybe 9 hours in below freezing temperatures. However, if you have the ability to build some form of shelter and get yourself off the snow and out of the wind, you could last indefinitely. The purpose of shelter is to keep you from going hypothermic or hyperthermic, too cold or too hot.

The third item water, you can last 3 days without water, not bad. A note on eating snow. You can eat snow to hydrate yourself at the cost of lowering your core body temperature. In the story they filled the camel back with snow and melted it next to their body's lowering the body temperature. You could regain some of this by eating and burning calories but you have to be aware of the delicate balance.

The fourth item, 3 weeks without food. Hopefully after 3 days you are able to get rescued, but during that time you will need energy to keep your head straight and also to hopefully get out of where you are, or at least get to a point where signaling is easier.

So here is my equipment list:

The first piece of equipment I recommend is a camelback. Most people go thru the day dehydrated. As a rule of thumb, if your urine is clear or very light yellow you are properly hydrated. Yellow urine indicates that you are already 1 quart low (at least). In addition the pack gives you a handy place to carry additional items.

In my camelback: 2 20g cliff bars and 1 tigers milk bar
In my snowboard pants: 1 cliff bar (12 gram) 1 tigers milk bar.

I used to have a small tin that I put lotion type sunscreen in but now I have found a sunscreen in the form of a lipstick type case.

In my camelback I have a 1 foot piece of twine and a 2.5 foot piece that is rolled up and masking taped in the center.

Snowboard Tool
My snowboard pants have a small pocket on the right leg down by the boot (sessions brand pants). I put my snowboard tool down there as its actually allot easier to get too. It has saved the day for numerous friends of mine. This tool comes with a small wrench and 2 bits each bit has 2 different screwdriver tips.

Extra Hat
A micro fleece hat that is light weight and takes up little space. I keep this in my right cargo pant pocket. You would be amazed how little gear some people take with them, they are thankful when you pull out a hat and offer it to them.

Face Mask
I have made it a habit to get to know the guy that works at the lost and found. About mid season you can go in there and give the guy a cliff bar and tell him that you forgot your face mask. Chances are he will give you something that has been in there for a few months and just let you keep it. So the face mask saves me from freezing my chin off and keeps blowing snow away.

Emergency space blanket
These are just Mylar sheets coated with some reflective stuff. It is alleged that these reflect 90 % of your heat back to you. I would be skeptical of those figures but even if it was 50 % its a great thing to have. The one I have weighs about 47g. Remember three hours without shelter = hypothermia. I keep this in my camelback

Medical kit
Home made kit. I work in a medical clinic, so I took about 15 minutes to pilfer some supplies and stuck them in a zip lock bag. Basic setup, band aids, gauze a bit of medical tape and some aspirin ibuprofen and acetaminophen. The clincher: a tampon. If someone has a compound fracture and is squiring blood you will need to control the bleeding until someone shows up. As far as I can tell aside from some sort of airway obstruction or heart attack blood loss would be the next thing that could kill you before the ski patrol arrives. This is kept in my camelback.

Magnesium Block
This is for lighting fires. I keep this down in my "boot pocket" because I don't want to fall on it. Its fairly light weight. You scrape one side with a knife and get shavings off of it. Then you use your knife on the other side for sparks. The good thing about this is that the magnesium shavings burn super hot, so if you gather enough shavings it will light wet tinder on fire. It might take a while and if the winds blowing it could be a tough task. I actually practice lighting fires at home with this and it takes some effort. But it works when its wet and it is fairly inert and indestructible.

As I have said before, being able to effectively communicate your situation and position to the outside world (Search and Rescue) is basically top priority. I carry a very nice radio that is capable of operating on the same frequencies that the ski patrol uses as well as amateur radio repeaters. I think that even a frs radio is better than nothing (the pair costs about 40 dollars, or the lost and found is filled with them). The fact that families use these greatly increases your odds of contacting someone and telling them you need help. Again, a plan for battery saving is in order here. If you are not reaching anyone turn it off for a while and try again later. When you finally do reach someone develop some plan to check in in every hour or every so. Search and rescue can monitor these frequencies and have good antennas that can hear you when no one else can.

I keep this in my camelback or in my jacket pocket. The belt clip is worthless so don't use it. Keep it in a zipped up pouch, pocket or you will lose it, or get it wet.

Cell phone
Hey, its a radio, well kind of. I make it a point to know where the cell phone works and doesn't. I have the advantage of my cell phone being my mp3 player so I generally always have it on my body. The only bad thing about that is that I'm sucking allot of power out of it to play my mp3s (hence the spare battery, charged of course). Here is a tip, cell phone batteries are very susceptible to cold weather. A cell phone that is cold (say 40 degrees F.) and doesn't have enough power to turn on will yield about 2 -3 minutes of operating time when the battery has been removed and placed next to your skin (in your underarm would be my choice stinky but effective). I keep this in my jacket top pocket.

Spare Cell phone battery
OK, a spare cell phone battery cost about 15 dollars. I think we understand now how important it is to be able to communicate to the outside world for help. I keep this in my camelback.

Duct Tape
It took about 5 minutes, a regular drinking straw and a roll of duct tape. I carefully started pulling the duct tape off the roll and onto the soda straw. I'm not sure how much I have on there but it is about the diameter of a nickel. I have yet to use it but hey, its duct tape! This is kept in my camelback.

5 in one Whistle Device
I keep this on my jacket zipper. I bought it for like 8 bucks online somewhere. Its a really nifty thing that has a whistle, led flashlight, thermometer, signal mirror and a magnifying glass. Granted that the signal mirror is pretty tiny and I'm not sure how effective it is but its better than nothing. The whistle is pretty cool and I've used it on more than one occasion to call my friends when they were at the wrong lift (the lift above me and I was too lazy to hike up to them). The thermometer is also very handy, there have been times when I felt completely snug and took a look at the temperature to find that it was 20 degrees F.

I actually have 2 knifes. One I keep on my belt and it is with me most of the time even when I'm not snowboarding it is an opinel and is a fold-able non serrated edge. The other knife I have is also a folding knife with about 1/2 inch serrated and 1/2 inch straight edge. It has a pocket clip on it. I keep it in my camel back front strap. Both of these knives are pretty easily accessible.

This is something that is very basic. Adds no weight and actually very functional. I use it to hold one of my knives at close range all the time. I have in the past used it to strap things to my camelback. This is a nylon webbing type belt and is very strong.

Regular strike anywhere matches that I pilfered from the work place. I keep about 10 of them rolled up and masking taped together inside the ziplock medical kit. I also keep a second book of matches in my wallet. You can get a book of matches from anywhere and remove half of the matches and stick it inside your wallet. You always have your wallet with you.

I usually always have my lighter and my Altoids tin in my right cargo pocket. Bic lighters I have found are the best. They are more expensive than the cheapos but they operate better at high altitudes (my local mountain ranges from 1100 to 1250 feet ASL!).

Sunglasses in pocket
Just to be thorough in my list I drive up wearing my sunglasses and when I get geared up my goggles and helmet go on and the sunglasses go into my right lower jacket pocket in the cloth bag they came in. When I get to the bar I take my helmet gear off and put on my sunglasses.

Zip Ties
Pilfered from work again. These have a million uses, one that pops into my mind is as a replacement for when you loose the nut that connects your ankle strap to your binding.

Actually this is some other cheap imitation but I have about a 2 feet of it rolled up and stuck into my camelback.

That is the list. I have made it a point to try and mention where I keep the items. One thing I have been guilty of is forgetting something. Sometimes I have forgotten my jacket (shell) sometimes I have forgotten my camelback. Its important to try and spread the equipment out between the various areas; this way if you forget your backpack you still have the magnesium block in your pants or if you forget the jacket you have matches in your backpack.

Using The equipment

  • Check the weather before you leave in the morning.
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Tell them that you have a radio and if there is a problem you will be trying to use it.
  • Remember that the red flag should go off once you are going out of bounds. At this point your gear should be in place.
  • If you have to spend the night in the back country for whatever reason, it's important to try and let someone know. Use your communications devices. Let them know which way you came from, which lift you were on and where you think your at.
  • Learn how to build snow caves. The couple in the first story had a shovel with them, I would think that a snowboard would be just as good. Its important when you use your snow cave that you do not lay directly on the snow. Cut some branches and lay them on the ground in your snow cave.
  • Try and build a fire. If you are properly equipped you should be able to build a fire (although I never have had to this, I've often wondered if I would be able to do it during a storm). Hypothermia can be staved off indefinitely if you are able to build a fire for yourself.
  • Once you have your shelter situation taken care of (and if you have not already contacted anyone) try again to get in touch with someone and let them know you are in need of assistance.
  • If you have water and food you will need to ration it. Who knows how long it may be until your rescued.
  • Don't think you are rescued until you are actually rescued. Just because you hear the helicopter over head don't drink all your water and eat all your food. They might not be able to get you aboard, they might not see you. People have thought they were going to be rescued and stopped rationing their supplies only to not be rescued.
  • Practice using your equipment:
  • Know how to use your radio and how far it will travel and how long the battery lasts.
  • Try and light a fire with your magnesium block.
  • Know which areas have cell phone coverage
  • Study some basic first aid and take a CPR class.
  • Know the area you are going into. If you are going into a back country area for the first time take an experienced local with you
  • The universal sign for distress is 3 of anything, Morse code for S.O.S. is ... --- ..., three crosses of branches in the snow. Learn how to signal the search and rescue people when they are near. Practice using your signal mirror. If you have your radio on you, turn it on and say you're east of me, you're right above me. Make some smoke, anything.

In closing, this is alot of gear to carry. Remember that you might only need this gear if you are planning on going backside. I keep it on my all the time I never know where my day will take me. If i feel like I'm too heavy, I usually figure a way to leave some stuff at the bottom of the lift, when I go back down I can pick it up again. Semper paratis, means always prepared, that's my motto and I hope you adopt it.

There is actually a few other things that I would like to add to my equipment but I cant afford it. One is a blue-tooth GPS receiver for my cell phone. This is small enough that I can easily carry it and it would allow me to tell someone exactly where I am at.

If you know that you are going to be dealing with avalanche dangers there is a few pieces of equipment that I recommend.

  • Avalung, this cool invention will give you an extra 20 minutes of under snow air for a total of 40 minutes. You wear it on your torso and if you know you are going under you stick the mouth piece in your mouth. It routes the exhaled air to your back and routes the inhaled air from the front of your body.
  • Avalanche beacon, self explanatory. Research these, they act as both transmitter and receiver so you can use your beacon to search for someone. They are available as rentals.
  • Resco recovery tags. These are sewn onto your clothes and alot of gear is coming with them these days. It acts as a reflector for the search device. The advantage of these is that they don't need batteries, you don't have to turn it on and they come preinstalled on some of the newer pants, jackets and helmets.

-Daniel L. Valdez


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