Rescue Me | Experiencing a Backcountry Rescue

Rescue workers help and injured skier in the backcountry off Spruce Peak.

Last winter, a party of skiers headed into the backcountry of Mount Mansfield from Underhill. With visions of fresh snow, powder turns, and good times, their trip took a turn for the worse when one member of the party lost control and fell face first into a tree.

While her injuries were not life-threatening, she required medical attention.

By the time rescuers arrived at the scene, it was obvious the woman and the members of her party were unaware how extensive a rescue effort was going to be. A minimum of 15 people ended up carrying her down the mountain. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where she was treated and released.

When emergencies happen, calling for help is not always easy. As in the case of the party on Mansfield, there can be limited or no cell phone service. When there is coverage, the call for help goes out to someone like Neil Van Dyke, leader of Stowe Mountain Rescue, and president of the Mountain Rescue Association.

Neil Van Dyke

“We’re living our normal lives,” says Van Dyke. “We’re at the movies or eating lunch.” All of the members of his organization—and most search-and-rescue organizations nationwide—are volunteers carrying pagers. “When a call comes in, it’s a disruption. It’s not a complaint; that’s just how it is.”

The call comes through a 911 dispatcher. Once an organization like Stowe Mountain Rescue is put into service, its members first spend time gathering information. Often, says Van Dyke, this seems time-consuming to those in need, but it is critical to a successful rescue.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” says Van Dyke. “It’s time well spent.”

Once they gathered accurate information, the team develops a plan based on the location of the party (or suspected location if the group or individuals are lost), and the extent of injuries, if any. Sometimes that plan calls for sending searchers into the backcountry. Other times, rescuers will ride snowmobiles. Still other times, simply communicating by phone can get a party out safely.

Most winter cases Stowe Mountain Rescue answers involve situations in which the party never intended on being “backcountry.” For example, if you drive to a trailhead, load up a backpack, and ski or snowshoe up a mountain before making a descent, you know you are heading out on a backcountry trip. On the other hand, if you ski at Smuggler’s Notch, ride the Sterling chair to the summit, and hike 15 minutes to ski the “back bowls” to Vt. Route 108—although the terrain is rugged and unsupported by Smuggler’s Notch Ski Patrol—many people, underdressed and underprepared, get lost or find themselves in dangerous situations.

Vermont state law views these two scenarios differently in terms of responsibility. If you hiked to make your turns, you don’t incur costs of a rescue. State laws clearly state that those who venture beyond a resort boundary from a chairlift accept all financial responsibility for rescue efforts, should their excursion go awry.

Van Dyke said he worries the statute addressing people venturing out from resorts could influence decision-making; someone might be reluctant to call for help for fear of having to foot the bill later.

“We don’t want them to hesitate to call for help,” he says. “The sooner they call, the sooner we can help.” If a party puts off calling until the situation becomes dire—say night falls or a storm rolls in—it makes a potential rescue that much more difficult and complex.

How can you tell if you should make a call for help?

“It’s based on the ability of a party to be self-sufficient and get themselves out,” Van Dyke says.

Prevention, of course, is the best approach: Know where you’re going, or go with someone who knows the area; watch the weather; travel in large groups; pack the proper equipment (and know how to use it); and let someone know where you’re going—and when you expect to return.

Even the smallest items can help. “Often if a group had just packed a headlamp, they would have been fine,” says Van Dyke.

Preparation also is key. That includes knowing that help is there. If an emergency occurs, there are trained and accredited agencies—operating in conjunction with the Vermont State Police—to protect backcountry adventurers.

For the Mountain Rescue Association’s video on Safe Backcountry Tips, go to:

Mark Aiken

Mark Aiken is a ski instructor at Stowe and a freelance writer. He is a recreational marathoner and triathlete.