How should we prepare for emergencies in the mountains?
-Every person in your group should have a planned itinerary left with an emergency contact. This itinerary should include what you’re wearing, what your gear (pack, tent, etc.) looks like, and whether you have overnight gear, as well as a description of the vehicle you’re leaving at the trailhead. Of course plans change quickly in the mountains, but stick as closely as possible to your itinerary and make sure you are clear with your emergency contact about when you should be considered overdue. Make sure everyone in your group also knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back at the trailhead or at camp.
-Once you’re in the mountains, hike with a partner whenever you’re venturing off-trail, especially into terrain that is third class and above. There are many situations in which having a hiking partner will do nothing to save your life, but two heads are better than one in terms of making decisions about weather, route-finding, and rescue should the need arise. The concept of a hiking partner is something that should be taken very seriously: if you are hiking with a partner, you must expect to stay with them, to help them if they get into trouble, and to receive the same consideration from them.
-If possible, carry personal radios or walkie-talkies. These will allow you to communicate both within your group and to the outside world. When you’re calling for a rescue, being able to give precise information to dispatch will speed things up immeasurably and ensure that the team that responds is prepared for the circumstances you describe. Cell phones will work in some places on the East Side and the Sierra Crest, but service is weak to nonexistent elsewhere in the range. SPOT devices are problematic for a number of reasons, chiefly because a rescue team will have no information about your condition and needs. Simply pressing the SOS button does not ensure that you will promptly be rescued, and this button should be used ONLY in a dire emergency when you have no other way to communicate. A two-way method of communication is vastly preferable. Signal mirrors, whistles, and flagging tape are good to have with you as well. Blaze orange is the color most easily seen from far away or from the air, so keep a bandana or other article of this color with you at all times.
-Every person in your group should have a basic level of training in wilderness first aid and a simple first aid kit — even just a roll of tape and some gauze can work wonders. Beyond this, everyone’s pack should contain their personal version of the “ten essentials,” including at minimum a headlamp with extra batteries, warm and waterproof layers, food, water, a knife, and a lighter or matches.
What are the most common rescues?
Most missions start as an overdue hiker called in by worried friends and relatives. Fortunately the bulk of these calls are happily resolved with time. We meet the hiker on the trail, as they just took longer than anticipated on their trip. Reasons are many: “Scenery was great,” “Weather was bad,” “I thought I was in better shape,” “The trail was harder than I expected,” “I got lost,” “I lost track of time,” etc. Make sure your emergency contact knows not to panic if you’re an hour or two overdue. You should be prepared to spend an uncomfortable night under your safety blanket — if you’re called in overdue in the late afternoon, it’s unlikely that rescuers will be deployed until the next morning. If you’re someone’s emergency contact, you should know as much as possible about your friend’s planned itinerary, experience level, and gear. Any information you can provide will help us to structure our search effort.
We respond to many patients with altitude sickness, particularly on the Mount Whitney trail. Altitude can affect anyone at almost any time, and at elevations much lower than you’d expect. Take your time hiking up the trail and make sure you’re staying well-hydrated and eating plenty of snacks. If you begin to feel headachey, nauseous, or disoriented, or if you start to have significant difficulty breathing that does not go away with rest, STOP GOING UP. The only cure for altitude sickness is a decrease in elevation. Wait an hour or two and see if your symptoms resolve. If you feel the same or worse, you MUST start hiking down. The summit isn’t going anywhere — you can try for it again another day.