You’re deep in the backcountry, your cellphone’s nearly dead and you seem to have just lost the barely distinguishable trail you were on not too long ago. It’s getting dark. The hike you planned took longer than anticipated. Hunger and thirst are becoming increasing concerns. The granola bar and water bottle you brought are both long gone. Panic starts to set in.
Unfortunately it’s a scenario that’s been all too common for the men and women of the Summit County Rescue Group in an already busy summer.
Getting on the wrong trial, not recognizing an intersection on the return trip or losing the trail altogether — coupled, perhaps, with a long, tiring hike — an under-prepared hiker can easily find himself or herself in trouble. Add to that an even minor injury and the cause for concern increases dramatically.
In light of three separate incidents on the same day on Quandary Peak earlier this week — and a number of others across the state — we spoke with three of the rescue group’s mission coordinators — Charles Pitman, Jim Koegel and Ben Butler — to find out a little more about just how busy this year has been and what tips they have to avoid a potentially dangerous situation.
Three incidents at the same location in the same day is unlikely, Koegel said, but increased trail use has kept the group busy.
“This summer is unique in that it’s one of the busiest summers we’ve ever seen,” he said, describing a 30-day period earlier this summer that included 19 separate calls. “Some years that’s more than a summer.”
Koegel suggested that the group’s busy season might be a part of a trend toward more summer trail use in the area — especially among hikers who have relatively little outdoor experience.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Pitman — who is also the group’s spokesman — said the nature of rescue incidents seems to vary year by year, but this year has leaned more heavily toward lost hikers than injured ones. Calls have been particularly common on trails in the Gore Range. Substantial deadfall on the trails has made some routes in the wilderness area difficult to distinguish, he said.
Butler suggested the first step to preventing potential rescue situations is to “start hiking early in the day in the summer. That’s probably the biggest piece of advice.”
Often those who require rescue find that they are on the trail longer than anticipated, and fading daylight becomes a factor.
Early starts are especially important when tackling a 14er. Koegel recommended being back below tree line by 1 p.m. due to the consistent threat of afternoon storm systems. Lightning fatalities made news recently in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Both Butler and Pitman stressed preparation prior to hiking. Knowing the trail or route before leaving is especially important.
“Try to do as much research as you can,” Butler said. “Stay within terrain you’re comfortable with.”
Even highly trafficked routes like the one up Quandary can be dangerous. Pitman said that in many years it’s the site of the majority of the group’s calls.
While it’s often rated as an easy hike, Butler reminds hikers that it’s still a 14er and that the trail becomes less distinct toward the summit. Veering from the trail can lead to potentially precarious and highly technical descents. Proper footwear is strongly encouraged.
“Quandary gets that reputation of being an easy hike, but it’s really not,” he said. “It’s easy on the 14er scale.”
In addition to knowing the trail, Pitman reminds hikers to be properly equipped. He said it’s fairly common to see people out on longer hikes wearing just shorts and cotton T-shirts.
Synthetic is always a better option because it will keep a hiker warmer even when wet. And with rapidly changing weather, extra layers are a virtual necessity.
“We see a fair number of people that have hypothermia in the summertime,” Pitman said, explaining that in the winter people are more likely to be prepared for cold.
Having a headlamp just in case a hike takes longer than expected is also a good idea.
“I think a lot of individuals misjudge how long a hike is going to take,” he said. “If you can stay dry and warm and you have a headlamp, you’re already ahead of a lot of people.”
Proper preparation becomes especially important should a hiker become lost, because rescues can take anywhere from a few to several hours or more — even when GPS coordinates are known.
In order to be better prepared, Pitman stressed either shutting a phone off or using airplane mode while hiking. With spotty cell phone service in the mountains, phone batteries drain at a much faster rate while searching for a signal. When hikers call for assistance, he said, their batteries are frequently near dead — making maintaining contact more difficult.
With a working cellphone, rescuers are often able to get the GPS coordinates of a lost hiker’s location, making rescues faster — assuming the lost person knows to stay in place.
Another common mistake is not bringing enough food along or staying properly hydrated.
“Once you’re low on energy, you start making bad decisions and more often than not you compound the situation you’re in,” Pitman said. Add to that encroaching darkness and “there’s a propensity to make ‘hurry up’ decisions” that can often further worsen the situation.”
Perhaps most important, Butler said, “Have a good sense to call for help early. Don’t wait until it’s dark.”
He reminded hikers that in the state of Colorado, rescue service is free — provided there is no need for an ambulance or a life flight — a fact he said may not be common knowledge.
“We’re a volunteer organization that is more than happy to come out and help.”
The Summit County Rescue Group is run in association with the sheriff’s office, and dispatched through 911.