The What-if Plan

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I knew what I was signing up for when I married a climber.So when I crawled between the cold sheets on a September night alone – again – I wasn’t particularly concerned that my husband wasn’t home yet from the Diamond’s Full House. I had learned that “I’ll be home around eight” translates to “I’ll be home, uhhh… sometime after dark.” And to be fair, quittin’ time isn’t hard and fast when you’re on a remote big wall.But what if he really needed help? I realized with a stomach clench that I had no route name. No details. No what-if plan.

Many annoying, but not life-threatening, things can lead to a delayed return – a stuck rope, trouble finding a route, a sprained ankle, a dead car battery – and most climbers will never need a rescue. But having a what-if plan will do wonders for the mental state of (im)patient loved ones back home. It will also save the climbers’ keisters (and other body parts) should they end up in a real SOS situation.

These eight tips, garnered from rescue volunteers and experienced climbers, can add life-saving speed and clarity to a rescue effort. So before you throw your rack in the truck and set out for the walls, have a cozy chat with someone who likes you and write down all the details below so there can be no mistake.

Specify Routes Last November, two climbers topped out on Eldorado Canyon’s classic Yellow Spur at dusk. They found their descent routes choked with snow and ice and deemed it safer to hunker down until daylight. A few hours later, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group got a call from a fiancée missing her other half. The canyon is a big place, and without a specific route name, the rescue team had to resort to the low-tech method of shouting. This took a while.

“The more that’s known about a climber’s location, the better,” says Rocky Mountain Rescue volunteer Ian Baring-Gould.

Don’t Embrace Change Along those same lines, the backcountry is not the place to be fickle. Pick a route, tell someone, and then stick to it. For added insurance, certified rock and alpine guide Chad Peele often writes a last-minute note with the route and peak name in the dirt on his windshield. You can also leave a note on the dash. And trailhead registers are there for a reason – use them.

Of course, it may happen that you haul your cookies out to a route only to find it wet or out of condition. Think ahead and give your contact at home a couple of back-up routes in the area. Always give your cell phone a try if your plans change.

Make Technology Your Friend Speaking of cell phones, don’t assume yours won’t work in the backcountry and leave it in the car. Wouldn’t it be handy if you could just make your own rescue call? Make sure your climbing partner brings a phone as well – your service chances improve if you have different service providers.

Two climbers set out last summer to summit Crestone Peak deep in the Colorado backcountry. When the downclimb led to a broken ankle, it was cell-phone-to-the-rescue.

Relay your Mode of Transport“The vehicle is the first thing rescuers will look for,” says Baring-Gould. The car at the trailhead equals climbers still in the area and a full-steam-ahead rescue effort. Just in case someone else drives a blue Subaru Outback (fancy that!), leave a license plate number as well.

Discuss Post-Climb PlansThose losing sleep over your whereabouts will not be amused if you’re found curled up under a bar stool after a few too many post-send beers. Be sure to tell your contact at home if you’re planning on stopping for a brew or a burrito after the climb.

Rocky Mountain Rescue volunteer Dave Christenson is roping up to find a missing party on Boulder’s Third Flatiron. It’s getting dark, and it’s raining. At the last minute, the climbers call from a bar, having heard they were “missing.” They’d called off their climb hours ago. Don’t let this be you.

Force Details about Yourself on Others Those coming to your aid could use a few more details about your situation. Make sure your closest peeps know the following: Is this your first or tenth time on the route? Do you take any medications or have a medical condition? How many people are in your party? All of these factors could affect the rescue effort.

Be Realistic (i.e., Truthful) about Your Return Time This is a toughie. On the one hand, you would like to keep your better half happy and say you’ll be home for dinner. On the other hand, you’re pretty sure you won’t be. Be realistic about timing so that those waiting for you know when you really are three hours overdue.

Discuss When to Pull the (Phone) Trigger Once you’ve established a reasonable E.T.A., decide how late is too late. “Have a cut-off time,” says Peele. “Tell someone that if you’re not back by a certain time, they should initiate a rescue.”

Deciding to make the call for help can be an emotional rollercoaster for loved ones. But rescue organizations would much rather investigate a situation that turns out to be no biggie than deal with the alternative.

Writing is one of the many ways Kate Nelson, an environmental educator at Eco-Cycle, passes the time while waiting for her overdue husband.

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