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Halfway up Bridalveil Falls—arguably the most famous frozen waterfall in the lower 48—I committed the cardinal sin of ice climbing: I fell on lead. I’d had the maxims of The Leader Shall Not Fall! and The First Rule of Falling When Ice Climbing Is Don’t Fall When Ice Climbing drilled into my head since my first days learning the craft on drips near New Hampshire. I had internalized this commandment so deeply that the first feelings, following the electrifying pain shooting up my leg, were not panic or fear, but rather: transgression, shame, and—most of all—embarrassment.
After the initial shock, I looked down at my ankle and felt queasy. My foot was bent at an unnatural angle along the inside of my calf, the sole of my boot staring straight back at me.
I discussed the options with my partner Bo. I’d fallen past the belay and was only 10 feet away from him. I told him I thought I might need a rescue, but that I wasn’t sure. Being only one pitch up, we realized he could lower me to the ground and then rappel himself. Back at the base, butt-scootching over to our bags, I took stock: Skinning in from the trailhead along the snow-covered access road had taken us 1 hour and 30 minutes. We then spent another 10 minutes plodding slowly up a steep cone of snow and ice to reach the start of the climb.
As I gingerly tried to weight my ankle and felt the crepitus of bones rubbing against each other, I realized that (a) skiing or walking out under my own power was not an option, and (b) even if Bo could get me out, it’d take many, many hours.
Before Bo was even down, I made the decision to call search and rescue. I felt a blush of embarrassment flood my face for the second time in 20 minutes as I dialed the phone number (we had phone service!). For as long as I’ve been climbing in the alpine, something else I’ve internalized is Don’t call for a rescue unless it’s vital. Or something like that … because, the thing is, unlike falling when ice climbing, there aren’t any witty sayings about rescues. I’ve just known I never wanted to be that guy.
I called San Miguel County search and rescue had a conversation with Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Rector, the head of the SAR team. He talked me through the next steps and what to expect, and said if I could get back to the access road, that would make things easier.
After butt scootching/crutching with my ski poles 500 feet down the snow cone and back to the access road, I sat on my pack for 45 minutes until Rector and several other SAR members arrived on snowmobiles. Rector dragged me out on a litter behind his sled and Bo rode back on a different snowmobile. An hour later, at Telluride Medical Center, the Emergency Room physician ordered an X-Ray and confirmed that I had snapped my fibula and likely blown up all the ligaments in my ankle. The next day I was in surgery.
Five months post-op, outfitted with a fancy new titanium plate and a baker’s dozen worth of screws, I’m back sport climbing and hiking. But in the back of my mind ever since that day, there’s been a niggling question: Was I right to call for a rescue? Or was it a decision made hastily?
I got in touch with Todd Rector to ask a few questions. I wanted to know not just about my own personal situation, but more broadly: When is calling for a rescue warranted and when is it irresponsible?
Below are a few themes from the conversation.
Are you prepared?
Inappropriate reliance on regional Search and Rescue infrastructure has reached a fever pitch this year. In an April report in The New York Times, Ali Watkins wrote about the Tip Top Search and Rescue crew in the Wind River Range, Wyoming, and how they have been stretched to a breaking point by the ill-prepared recreationists calling for rescues during the pandemic, as ever greater numbers of people have flocked to the outdoors—a trend seen across the country.
Rector thinks of it like this: “The thrust in society these days is, ‘I push a button and they’ll come get me with a helicopter.’ I want to push people away from that as much as I can. Not because if it’s a real emergency people shouldn’t call, but because we have a lot of people calling in that don’t need it. I’m a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of guy.”
[Also Read Realistic Self-Rescue: Three Must-Have Multi-Pitch Skills Using Things You Actually Carry]
There’s not a hard-and-fast bulleted list of what people need for backcountry missions to be “prepared,” Rector says, but he offers this nugget as a general guideline: “Any of our SAR volunteers going out in the backcountry on a mission are prepared to spend 24 hours without assistance, in whatever backcountry terrain and conditions they’re traveling in (so winter requires different preparation than summer obviously). So we’re talking enough gear, food, water, insulation, in order to be out there for 24 hours. It doesn’t need to be a comfortable 24 hours, but it needs to be survivable, should the shit hit the proverbial fan.”
Rector acknowledges that, personally, he “surfs that gray line pretty hard” in terms of bringing just enough. “I’d be a miserable cur if I had to spend a night out with what I carry on a mountain-bike ride,” he says. “It’s a balancing act.”
That said, in terms of some go-to items in his kit:
- Communication Devices: A charged phone and an extra battery charger, plus a navigational device (he carries a Garmin InReach Mini) that he can both text from and press the SOS button if he needs to or becomes incapacitated.
- Navigational Tools: A map and compass, a GPS navigational device, or both. Importantly, Rector emphasizes, “Know how to use them. Don’t think that just chucking a GPS in our pack is going to solve all your problems. Having some map-reading and orienteering knowledge is essential to success in the backcountry.” He also says resources like Gaia GPS and GoogleMaps are great tools. (Note: Sign up for an Outside+ membership and get Gaia GPS Premium for free!)
- Basic Medical Kit: This can vary based on the activity and location, but basic wound dressings and bandages along with some duct tape are a good start, plus advil, scissors, etc. For more ideas, check here.
So how did I score in my Bridalveil snafu based on this preparedness rubric? I was a competent ice climber trying an appropriate objective for my skill set. I had a charged phone and a charged Spot X that I knew how to use. I had enough insulation, food and water that I am confident I could have survived even a bitterly cold night if I needed to. I think I was well-prepared.
Can you move?
This was one of the bigger points Rector kept coming back to. If it’s not a matter of life and limb, not an injury that you think will get more serious or progressively worse, and you’re prepared to survive 24 hours in the backcountry, one of the best litmus tests for determining whether or not it’s appropriate to request a rescue is: Can you move?
“I think your ability to ambulate is probably the biggest factor,” Rector says. “If you’ve injured yourself to the point where you’re not able to move over the ground under your own power? That’s a problem, unless you’ve got partners to assist you in that. But on the other hand, we deal with a lot of twisted knees and sprained ankles, and it turns out that after the initial pain is gone, people can move okay.”
Rector also says that, if SAR can establish high-level communication via phone and determine that the situation doesn’t fit the criteria for a rescue, they may stay put: “We’ll tell [the injured/stranded party], ‘We’ll have people on standby in the case that you do need further assistance, but for now keeping moving.’” (If SAR receives an SOS call, they’ll always respond, Rector added—so treat that button carefully and treat it with reverence.)
In remembering my particular accident, Rector says, “You were a significantly injured individual, initially in a zone that was going to require a prolonged mission to get you off the second pitch. You and your partners’ ability to self rescue and get to flatter ground was paramount in making the mission quick and seamless. We would have still gotten to you, but it would have been hours longer if we had to rap off the top or climb to the second pitch, and then do a litter carry down the slope.”
Which all leads to the most important theme.
Self rescue and self extrication are hugely important
“Self Rescue and self extrication are hugely important,” Rector says, “and we’re going to push that always.”
But, he notes, this doesn’t mean that you’re on your own. SAR is always there to help in a lesser capacity, and—even if they’d prefer not to have to mobilize—want to stay apprised of the situation should they need to deploy.
“We’d rather get a call from someone who says, ‘I twisted my knee, I’m at this location, I’m making progress on my way out,’ and they’re looking for directions and advice about that,” Rector says. “I’d much rather have that heads up that potentially something’s going wrong.”
There are multiple reasons for pushing the self-rescue angle. Firstly, it’s often the quickest way to get help, according to Rector. The San Miguel County SAR Team is fully volunteers save for two paid employees of the sheriff’s office. “Our response time to a back country location can, in the best of times, be an hour or more,” Rector says.
Secondly, any backcountry rescue, by its very nature, puts the rescuers in harm’s way. “We will always put rescuer safety first,” Rector says. “So, Michael, your accident for example: If your accident had taken place during a time when those surrounding peaks were really fired up with avalanche hazard, we might have taken control measures before putting rescuers on the ground. We might not have put rescuers on the ground at all. That doesn’t we don’t hang it out there sometimes and take some risk, but generally the rescuers’ safety is paramount.”
So the ultimate far-from-mindblowing-but-important-to-remember takeaway: SAR is there to help in true emergencies, but don’t take rescue services for granted.
“So,” I ask Rector at the end of our interview, “Was I right to call for a rescue?” Part of me wants vindication; part of me just wants to apologize for putting the SAR team in that situation regardless.
“Your particular injury was serious enough that if we had known, we would have probably said you should have waited for us. Perhaps I wouldn’t have suggested you butt scootch,” he says. “But I was speaking to an experienced backcountry traveler that was with it. That’s one of the things about rescues—it’s a case-by-case thing. You almost completely self rescued. Pretty seamless.
“You screwed yourself by sounding super capable,” he says with a laugh.