We all want to play safe in K-Country, and in this series of articles, we’re going to cover the basics of how to have a great day out there. This series is being produced with the support of Kananaskis Country Mountain Rescue, and in particular, thanks to Morgen Funston of KCMR for her wisdom and suggestions.
You have followed all of the advice in the previous 5 articles. You’ve prepared, ate well, are dressed right and have the right gear, and you have been mindful through the day.
But something has gone very wrong. And now you need help from KCMR. What do you do now? Your options are controlled first and foremost by YOUR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE, but also by where you are.
Scenario 1: You have comms
Let’s start by assuming you’re in cell coverage – which actually covers a lot (but not all) of Kananaskis – or you have a sat phone, inReach, Zoleo, Bivi Stick or SPOT two-way communications device. You are following the previous bits of advice and have STOPPED. Now stay put for a few minutes.
Step 1: BEFORE you call for help
- Use your phone to determine your LOCATION. Virtually all Smart Phones have built in apps that can use the GPS. Often it’s the Compass app. In fact, take your phone right now and root around in it until you can find your latitude and longitude (the screen shot at right is from an iPhone’s Compass app; the lat/long is the bottom line shown). Units don’t matter – the numbers tell you what you need to know. Look it up. We’ll wait… Now remember where that data is so if you’re in an emergency you can get it quickly;
- Using your phone, take THREE PHOTOS looking around you. As long as you’re not in a dense forest and have a sightline to a mountain or something, this will help KCMR know how bad things are. It will show them the terrain you’re in (this step won’t help if you’re on a sat phone);
- Way back in the first page of this series, we talked briefly about mapping apps on your phone. LAUNCH YOUR MAPPING APP. (If you don’t have one, don’t know which one to get, and you’re on an iPhone, go download David Crawshay’s free TOPO MAPS CANADA app. Before you head out, download the underlying topo maps). Now launch it. Tap that little arrow in the lower left corner while you are anywhere in K-Country. You will be located on the map. Any dotted line is a trail. Tap on the line and it will tell you what trail. Tap on a flag and it will name the landmarks, including mountain names. Make note of where you are and what trail you’re near;
- If it’s a climbing accident, KNOW YOUR CLIMB CRAG AND ROUTE NAME. Kananaskis Mountain Rescue is made up of climbers. Short of inventing your own route, they’ll instantly know where you are;
- TAKE AN INVENTORY of the emergency gear your group has: spare food, water, clothes, etc.
Now, you’re ready to call the cavalry.
Step 2: Call 9-1-1/SOS
On a cell phone, call 9-1-1 and tell them you need Kananaskis Dispatch. If you’re on a sat phone, 9-1-1 doesn’t work, so in that case call the Kananaskis Emergency Services (“KES”) number 403-591-7767 directly. CALMLY tell them:
- What your problem is – injured, lost, can’t continue, etc
- The location lat/long that you got from your phone;
- What trail or mountain you were on and what you were doing;
- That you have a mapping app (Crawshay’s trail map, or Gaia, or some other app), know how to use it and exactly where you are;
- That you have photos of the terrain you are in
- What kind of supplies you have – food, clothes, etc
If you’re using a two way communication device ( inReach, Bivi Stick, Zoleo, SPOT Messenger), hit that SOS button and wait for a text reply. Then go through the list above, texting the information. These devices are GPS based with built in location determination, so you don’t need to worry about getting a location from your phone.
Step 3: What will happen after you establish comms
All sorts of things can happen at this stage, all of them good.
- KES may relay information and get you to send texts back and forth;
- KCMR may call you back;
- They’ll want your photos and (based on radio communication we’ve heard) will ask you to confirm your location about 5 times. Don’t worry; they’ll find you;
- If you didn’t download Crawshay’s app (and you could do it now here), KCMR can e-mail or text you a screenshot map of your location. Since a map of some kind is nearly essential to perform a self-rescue, it would probably help to KNOW HOW TO READ A MAP;
- KCMR may simply be able to use your location and photos to tell you how to get out of trouble (assuming you’re not injured). They refer to these as “armchair rescues”. They do several a week, all year round;
- KCMR often responds to multiple calls a day. If you’re stable, can wait and are well equipped, other parties may be triaged for a rescue ahead of you. KCMR may have to ask you to wait a while, or even until the morning;
- KCMR may send a helicopter for you. See below for helicopter protocols;
- IF things are not great with you, and it’s too late to send a helicopter for you, and there’s risk associated with waiting until a helicopter can get you, KCPR and Conservation Officer staff may come find you on foot. This will take time, but they can bring stuff to help you make it through until the helicopter arrives.
If your phone battery starts running low, pull out that back up power pack that you bought when you read the “What to Carry” article and get it charged back up.
Scenario 2: One-way communications
As noted above, if you have a two-way device (inReach, newer generation SPOT, Zoleo, Bivi Stick, etc) you will then text info back and forth. This will tell KCMR the precise nature of the problem or injury so the correct rescue gear comes to the scene. You’ll also know when help will arrive.
If you have an older SPOT, all you can do is PUSH THE SOS BUTTON and stay where you are. You just have to be patient and DON’T MOVE until help arrives.
Whatever you do, don’t decide after an hour you don’t need them and just wander off. First, getting help within an hour is nearly unheard of. Until your SOS is cancelled, they’re coming for you, no matter how long it takes. If they get there, and you are warm and snug in your bed at home, they will not like you, and you might have put another rescue at risk.
All these devices’ emergency notifications will end up in the hands of KES, who will get KCMR or a Conservation Officer on their way to you. See below for what to do when the helicopter arrives.
Scenario 1 & 2 in real life
When we’re volunteering with Parks, we carry SPOTs and have an established call in/call out procedure as well. Having accidentally not called out on occasion, we know the cavalry are dispatched less than 60 seconds after we are supposed to check out. They take it seriously. When Friends trail crews work directly with Parks staff, they have radios and a call in-out procedure. When we’re not with Parks staff, FKC Crew Leaders now carry an inReach, and we have a call in-call out process using them.
Here’s a real life example of Scenario 1 & 2: the story of an actual rescue in early 2022. All were fine in the end, though a cold night was spent out in the wilderness. Read about it here.
Scenario 3: No comms at all
Now, what happens if you need help but you have no way of communicating? Now what?
The basic problem is that NO ONE IS GOING TO COME AND FIND YOU IF THEY DON’T KNOW YOU NEED TO BE FOUND.
Step 0: Leave A Route Plan
So this is the time you should have had the foresight to LEAVE A ROUTE PLAN with someone before you left your house this morning, including:
- what type of vehicle you’re driving (with license plate),
- exactly where you’ll be parked,
- how many in the party,
- exactly where you were planning on going;
- the time you should be back, and
- the time they should call for help if you’re NOT checked back in.
You can download a simple Word document to fill in and e-mail to a friend here. Feel free to modify it. DON’T leave it on your dashboard.
Step 1: Activate the plan
If you left the plan with someone, it’s up to them to call KES at the non-emergency number of 403-591-7755 and report that you’re missing, so make sure they know who to call. You’re then considered an “overdue” hiker, biker, paddler or whatever.
Step 2: An “overdue” report
Understand that when they get that call, KCMR will NOT drop everything immediately to come find you. People are overdue all the time for all sorts of non-emergency reasons (including stopping for an unplanned beer or ice cream at the end of the day, or locking your keys in the car like we have done). The first article in this series talked about the planning process, including the need to estimate time on trail. So the plan you leave should have two times: an estimated time you’ll be back, and a “call for help if you’re not back by” time. KES will ask for both.
Step 3: Find the car
Not long after an overdue report is received, the first thing that will happen is someone, usually a Conservation Officer, will come look for you (sometimes by boat), normally just trying to locate for your vehicle. If your vehicle’s not where it was supposed to be, they’ll report that it can’t be found, and they’ll notify whomever called it in, so being precise about your planned parking spot is critical.
If your emergency contact, says you’re still not checked out, typically a search will begin for your car at other nearby places. When/if they finally find it, actual searching for you can begin, and that’s a function of remaining daylight and weather. However, if you’re on a big, multi-day objective (like, for instance, the Aster Lake-Northover Ridge-Three Isle loop), just finding your car doesn’t help much.
Step 4: Wait. Then wait some more.
Leaving a route plan helps a lot if you’re lost and confused, stuck, or injured. But you must realize that K-Country is a big place, and help won’t come very fast. This is why you’re carrying all that emergency gear discussed in previous articles in this series. As a general rule, you’ll do best if you
- Stick together;
- Stay stationary, and
- Be as visible as you can be (near or in a clearing, not in a dense forest) while you’re waiting.
Given that you’re following the earlier advice of carrying an emergency kit, you can ride out a night (though it may not be fun).
- Consider moving ONLY if the situation you’re in can’t get any worse;
- If you’re just lost, RETRACE YOUR STEPS to somewhere you know; don’t continue on, and don’t forget to use Crawshay’s app to get you out;
- Consider lighting a smoky fire (because even when fire danger is low, a fire will get attention FAST. But please, don’t start a forest fire in the process).
Is there an injury?
There is a way to accelerate getting help if injury is involved, however, but only if:
- You’re not lost, and
- At least one person in your group is mobile, and
- The injured party is stable enough, in a non-life threatening state, and unlikely to get worse.
If, and ONLY if, all three conditions are fulfilled, here’s what you do:
- Start by getting the precise GPS location of the injured party from your phone, and WRITE IT DOWN somewhere.
- Use Crawshay’s app to send someone to the nearest recognized trail (the more popular the better), and follow that towards the trailhead. Much as we think Kananaskis is an empty place, trails tend to have people on them, especially official ones, and there’s ALWAYS traffic on the roads you can flag down.
- Intercept someone. Give them the GPS location and nature of the injury, and get them to go find help. They can call KES when they’re back in cell service, or go to any open campground. Campground hosts ALWAYS have emergency radios.
- With your new saviours getting the cavalry, go back and re-join your injured party.
If the only way you can be helped is by helicopter, the helicopter will need a place to land nearby, or failing that, a clear area where a KCMR staff member or Conservation Officer can be lowered in on a long line to you or near you.
After you know a helicopter is coming, it’s a wise move to find a nearby clearing if you’re mobile enough, because you can’t be seen if you’re in a dense forest. Once you hear that helicopter, KNOW THE UNIVERSAL HELICOPTER RESCUE SIGNAL pictured at right, because KCMR is going to want to know it’s you.
If you’re stuck in a dense forest during the day, the wind is calm and you hear a helicopter, SHAKE A TALL TREE. Believe it or not, a single shaking tree is quite visible from above, according to KCMR.
It’s not as bad as it sounds
Understand the most common places for accidents and problems requiring KCMR help isn’t way in the back-country (though rolling an ankle can and does happen anywhere). Problems happen on places like Yamnuska and East End of Rundle that seem benign. However, this tempts people to shortcut and get off route in their haste (see the previous page on not making a bad situation worse).
On the bright side, overdue people are not all that common, and are almost always found within 18 hours of being reported. The cavalry can come in 2-3 hrs in the right circumstances, and you can have a big role to play in getting them there as fast as you can by following the advice above.
- Use your phone to get your location, take pictures and map it;
- Leave a route plan, parking spot and check out time with someone to speed up getting help;
- Carry a SPOT or inReach type device;
- Try to contact KES as soon as you know you have issues;
- Out of cell coverage, consider sending someone to find help in the right circumstance;
- Stay stationary, visible and together where possible;
- Leave where you are only if you can’t make the situation worse.
Postscript: We once again thank Morgen Funston, who assisted KCMR for the summer of 2017, with her invaluable help and advice with this series, and her infinite patience in reviewing each page prior to publication.
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To see how this changes in the winter, head here –>
Find out more info on staying safe in K-Country here!