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SAR frequency through time?

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SAR frequency through time?

Postby giantbrookie » Fri Jan 09, 2009 12:12 pm

Many of us have noted a decline in off trail use (possibly excluding peak bagging) over the past few decades. Perhaps it is just me, but it is my perception that the average backcountry hiker is less well prepared in terms of orienteering and other essential wilderness skills, than in the past. Whether it is paint-by-numbers routes for technical climbing/mountaineering to similarly detailed hiking guidebooks, it seems to me that a greater percentage of backcountry hikers are more poorly prepared to deal with the commonplace problems of getting off the route (such as the simple act of accidentally following diverted trail drainage off a switchback) as well as changed conditions. Moreover because of the false security given to many by detailed guidebooks, GPS and other technology, it seems as if more folks may take end up doing things in the backcountry beyond their ability.

The question I pose to the likes of George and others who have decades of experience in SAR is: Are SAR operations more common than they were say two or three decades ago, even though it is clear that far fewer people are going off trail where they (in theory) are more likely to get lost?
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby rlown » Sat Jan 10, 2009 2:36 pm

The question I pose to the likes of George and others who have decades of experience in SAR is: Are SAR operations more common than they were say two or three decades ago, even though it is clear that far fewer people are going off trail where they (in theory) are more likely to get lost?


Les Stroud did a show recently on "Survivourman" (sp?), where they did a SAR rescue. He had a SPOT device, but i wasn't sure if that came into play.

If you're going "off trail", you better know where you're going, and have a way to get out or at least someone who can get the word out your down; bad weather, get out. SAR depends on notification and a good reference. You dont get much of that when it all goes bad.

I'm actually surprised that more of us off trail types haven't been more severly injured.

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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby giantbrookie » Sat Jan 10, 2009 7:09 pm

rlown wrote:I'm actually surprised that more of us off trail types haven't been more severly injured.

With the exception of serious climbers, I don't really think the majority of off trail hikers, whether today, or 30-40 years ago, traverse such difficult terrain that they are any more likely to be injured. Most off trail hiking done by folks is class 1 and 2, so it really isn't much worse than hiking on a trail, in terms of risk of injury. The big difference off trail is the need to have navigational skills, and this skill is apparently in limited enough supply nowadays to have drastically reduced the amount of off trail travel compared to 30-40 years ago. I have had several close calls or injuries in my 40 plus years in the high country. The two most serious were owing to lapses of judgement while climbing--these were two incidents that could have been fatal (one a dicey and long delayed self arrest and the other nearly getting crushed by a falling rock). One I emerged unscathed from, while I broke my ankle on the other (and hiked out 8 miles without assistance). In addition to those two, I had a hyperextension of my left knee when I messed up my landing leaping over a stream. This wasn't an issue hiking out, but the after effects still linger 21 years later. That was off trail, but could have easily occurred in an on trail situation. I also broke two fingers on my left hand while fishing at a remote lake, simply by losing my balance while positioning to cast along a really mellow shoreline. While off trail, that one could have easily occurred at any trail-accessed place.
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby gdurkee » Fri Jan 16, 2009 1:15 pm

I somehow missed this post. It's a really good question and one I mull over occasionally.

In the last 20 years, I don't think SAR numbers have changed significantly in Sequoia Kings, and probably not that much in Yosemite (technical climbing SARs may (??) have gone up -- based on nothing much, just my own guess).

Overall, hikers are more experienced now but I don't think that's changed SAR statistics significantly. Accidents and getting sick happen -- I don't think skill is that much of a factor. In the 70s (the leading edge of the baby boom and subsequent surge in hiking) everyone was a beginner and I think there were some wimpavacs -- medivacs and SARs that maybe hikers involved could have spent more effort self-resuceing. Also, when you'd get a big tropical storm then, there'd be all sorts of abandoned camps and equipment and people invading ranger stations. In those days, it would not be unusual to have 20 soggy hikers stuffed into a 10' X 14' ranger station, the cheerful ranger passing out tea and feeding the fire. I think leaking tents and not very good rain gear would push people over the edge and they'd bail out of the backcountry rather than hunker down.

With a few exceptions (see thread on missing hiker), we don't see much abandoned equipment anymore. A large percentage of hikers now are aging baby boomers who are more experienced, though, interestingly, we are seeing a slight blip in age-related SARs (e.g. heart problems). There's also a blip in overdue reports of 60 + year old hikers -- they're not going as fast as they think they will (the map is NOT the territory and their knees are not up to long trips as well as they used to be) and their spouses report them overdue. So far, they've been fine, but several days late.

Finally, there's really not that much difference in cross-country hiking and subsequent SARs. I think off trail use is about the same as it's been for 20 years or so. I don't think there's any difference in numbers per 1,000 hikers or whatever. There's been more than a few really lucky saves. Someone falls in some out of the way spot -- alone -- and another group just happens to come along and hear them. This is actually more than coincidence. There's really a lot of cross country hikers out there and a lot of the common routes are hiked every few days.

The major problem, of course, is if they're alone and, worse, left no detailed itinerary with anyone. I think nothing annoys me more on a SAR than absolutely no idea where a person is. They're bro from Kansas calls and says they're not back from a trip on the JMT -- have we seen him?? Mostly, we just get lucky and find them (though, modestly, I have to say experience does start to suggest where good places to look are). The bodies still, presumably, out there are all solo hikers. I think Yosemite might have something like 20 people they've never found. All missing person reports in Sequoia Kings are accounted for.

When you come down to it, it's been my experience that SARs are mostly a function of the number of people in the backcountry and not as much as you'd think related to their experience. I'll see if I can get some actual statistics.

g.

PS: I was a little worried once when I first saw a hiker with a GPS. It was in LeConte Canyon -- spectacular canyon, of course -- and this guy's head down, concentrating on his gizmo, yells to his buddy "we're almost to Little Pete" and keeps walking, head down. If that was the future, it would have been grim. But it doesn't seem to be.
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby giantbrookie » Fri Jan 16, 2009 5:31 pm

George,

Thanks for your post and your insight. Those are some very interesting observations and they bring up a number of points I didn't think about, such as the aging core of experienced baby boomer hikers. I am surprised at the cross country observation, because it sure seems to me that off trail use has fallen off in a number of areas. I think this is most notable in the north Sierra and some of the west flank areas that are not the true glamor areas of off trail hiking in the Sierra. The number of old use trails that are now overgrown from non use (great example is the alleged old trail to Cup Lake starting at "Tall Timber" on Hwy 50) or "unmaintained trails" that have become "what trail?" are pretty numerous in the N. Sierra and parts of the western flank. It is true, now that I think of it that, whereas Judy and I have gone days without seeing a soul (spanning entire trips) in the North Sierra and western flank, nearly all of our prime time High Sierra off trail hikes encountered people in remote places. We ran into folks both times at that fabled Lake----- (1996 and 1997), at Dumbbell Lakes (1993--although we didn't ever quite meet them--we saw them creeping over the gap from Lakes Basin but they didn't make it down to the lower lakes where we spent most of our time), at Window Lake and famed----------- Lakes (1997), Martha, Davis, Goddard L10232 (1994). There are a reasonably long list of places in Seki that we or I didn't bump into anyone, as a luck of the draw, including Ionian Basin (1994), McGee Lakes (1994), upper Blue Canyon (1994, 2008), Tunemah L. and basins east (2008), Glacier Ridge (1979, 2002), Tableland (1979, 2002), all basins on east flank of Kaweahs and Red Spur (2003), and the oddest one of all: Sphinxes-Brewer Basin-South Guard Lake-North Guard L. (1999)-that was strange because a bunch of guys obtained wilderness permits to go to the Sphinx Lakes just in front of us in line (seemed like nearly everyone in front of us was headed there). We just never saw anyone (perhaps we were so slow the pack red shifted away from us, bagged Brewer--the target of almost of all them, so far as I could tell--and looped out of there over Longley).

Anyhow, thanks for your interesting insight.

Cheers,

John
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby gdurkee » Fri Jan 16, 2009 8:36 pm

John:

Interesting. I suspect you're right that xc use has gone down in places other than Parks -- we get so many people that small fluctuations aren't really noticed. I think that actual numbers have gone down in 20 years (the 70s were the absolute peak, and might be considered artificially high), however use nights have gone up -- so effective use (impact) has really stayed the same.

Also interesting: there's been a significant drop in impacted campsites since the 70s. A recent resurvey of a study done in the mid 70s found significantly fewer identifiable campsites and those that do exist have smaller impact areas. For instance (this is from memory...) when I did the resurvey at McGee Lakes, I found only about 10 campsites at all the lakes. The '77 survey identified about 30. Even then, a number of the ones I did find were used maybe once a year, if at all.

In all modesty, a huge amount of this is due to the constant minimum impact education efforts by b/c rangers and trail head rangers -- a long and slow process, but successful (plus a few kick in the rear citations, for emphasis...).

In fact, as I sit here thinking about it, I may have to revise my thinking that, you're right, a significant number of people are not using xc routes. Even in the 80s, I'd see 3 to 5 parties per week going to McGee or (our favorite...) xxxxxxx Lake. Last year, that number was probably 3 to 5 parties a month for either of those places. The same might be said of the Ionian (though use levels then and now are higher, they still have dropped in 20 years).

Hikers nowadays are head down, poles click clacking away for Whitney! No deviations from that goal (allow me to share my Haiku from this summer:

Blinded by Whitney
Trolls with poles click clack south.
Pikas dance by moonlight.)

I don't know what this means. John Muir Trail use seems up by 10 to 20 % in the last 3 years.

"red shifted away" -- I'll have to use that. (If some evil doer gets away from me -- impossible in the old days -- I'll just tell my supervisor that they 'red shifted away..." That'll work!) It may be my metaphor for getting older and creakier.

As I said, I'll try to track down actual stats on this. I don't know that we have stuff that gets that detailed on hiking. Sequoia doesn't keep great stats on SARs either, though I think Yosemite does. The campsite inventories, though, are fairly rigorous and I hope get published at some point (I have the data -- if it looks like nothing is appearing, I'll at last do some maps from it).

g.
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby giantbrookie » Sat Jan 17, 2009 1:07 pm

gdurkee wrote:Blinded by Whitney
Trolls with poles click clack south.
Pikas dance by moonlight.g.


Nice. There is certainly a side of me that figures that if folks wish to follow the herd, it leaves the off trail and less publicized spots even more secluded.
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby Mike McGuire » Sun Jan 18, 2009 12:13 pm

You don't have to go off trail to get reasonable seclusion, just get off the JMT. I did a loop last summer http://peninsulaflyfishers.org/Fishing_Tales/kernriver2008/kernriver2008.html where I went in over Cottonwood pass to the PCT, up it to a bit north of Tyndall Creek, and then over to the Kern, down it to Golden Trout Creek, and back up and out over Cottonwood. Before we reached the JMT and after we left it, we met about one party a day at most, some days none. This was mid-August, high season. Of course on the JMT it was one party about every 15 minutes Fortunately, we were only on it for one day and a camp at Tyndall Creek.

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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby BSquared » Mon Jan 19, 2009 5:11 pm

OK, I just can't help but respond to all this JMT bashing... ;) I did it five years ago, and I'm going to do it again this summer, and for the likes of me -- right coaster though I may be now -- it's a fantastic trip and "crowded" is almost an oxymoron for just about anyplace in the Sierra, imho. On our 2004 through-hike my son and I saw a lot of people between Yosemite and Tuolumne, a lot of people at the overused campsites at the junction of the JMT and the Piute Pass Trail, and a lot of people between Guitar Lake and the Portal. Period. We usually camped where we were completely alone, or so it seemed (we didn't go looking for people who might be nearby, nor did we sing loud raucous songs to see if we could rile them up, mind you). I think we saw a total of two other parties between LeConte Canyon and the bridge over Woods Creek. (Which was closed for repairs, incidentally. Seems very irritating that the one time I get to cross the Golden Gate of the Sierra the damn thing is closed for repairs! Guess that's why I have to do it again... ](*,) )

Frankly, I think you guys are just spoiled! [-X

-B2
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby gdurkee » Mon Jan 19, 2009 5:28 pm

I stand four square with bsquared. It's just not that bad, crowd-wise. I do, though, get just slightly twitchy at the tunnel vision of some of them -- there's more to the JMT than just the baskets on their ski poles. Still, you can talk to JMT hikers. PCT hikers have gone off into some never-never land resembling a shared hallucination. I've always thought there's a PhD thesis on language drift among indigenous PCT hikers.

Also, other than the obvious self-interest of job security, I'm happy to see hikers out anywhere, untethered from the metaverse (well, except those annoying ear buds...).

g.
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Re: SAR frequency through time?

Postby el cuervo » Mon Jan 19, 2009 7:55 pm

100' either side of the JMT the solitude is plentiful.
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