Yosemite Search and Rescue releases 2008 report
YOSAR 2008 report
Hundreds of large-scale, alpine-area search and rescue (SAR) operations are mounted every year, all over the world. A common misconception is that most of these rescues are aimed at climbers who have been stupid enough to be in places where no one belongs to begin with. However, there are many factors that contribute to these situations, and each rescue op is completely unique.
Yosemite Search And Rescue (YOSAR) has released its rescue statistics and analyses for 2008, assembled by the Friends of YOSAR non-profit organization. The report shows the majority of YOSAR rescues to have been hiking-related, a trend which has continued for at least the past decade, if not longer.
According to Friends of YOSAR:
The majority of the YOSAR missions (roughly 60%) involve hikers, either ones who have become lost in the wilderness or injured on the trails. The duration and complexity of these missions can range from a month-long, $100,000 effort to a two-hour, two-person assist. Approximately ten percent of YOSAR missions involve climbing accidents. Often, these rescues attract the most attention because they are coupled with risky exposure and technical challenges. The remaining SARs are as varied as the activities in Yosemite.
A 2007 psychology study by the University of California, San Francisco, aimed at describing general characteristics of SAR ops in Yosemite, reached similar conclusions:
[From 1990 to 1999] YOSAR performed 1912 SAR missions, assisting 2327 individuals and recording 2077 injuries and illnesses. Popular trails in and around Yosemite Valley collectively accounted for 25% of all individuals needing SAR services. The duration of SAR missions averaged 5 hours, used 12 SAR personnel, and cost $4400. Helicopter was the primary mode of transport in 28% of SAR incidents. There were 112 fatalities, yielding a SAR case fatality rate of 4.8%, with falling the most common mechanism of lethal injury.
Day-hikers in and around Yosemite Valley use a large portion of SAR services, with lower extremity injuries and dehydration/hypovolemia/hunger the most common reasons. It seems reasonable to direct future intervention to prevention of these commonly identified problems in this particular population of Park visitors.
This is not to say that hikers are irresponsible or unprepared and climbers aren't - that is most certainly not true. At the very least, the point is that accidents can happen to anyone, and the high volume of hikers will inherently lead to more accidents to that effect. This is for the sake of comparison.
Backcountry safety standards
Preparation for trips into the backcountry, climbing or otherwise, is paramount. With adequate knowledge and preparation, the vast majority of SAR ops could be prevented.
- Awareness of seasonal weather trends, as well as current conditions and weather predictions
- Packing warm and waterproof clothing in preparation for weather changes
- Packing extra food in case of a delay
- Informing friends, family members, and the local park/area officials of your planned route and return date, including when to inform authorities of a delay
- Avoiding solo climbs or hikes
- Prior research of climbing or hiking route - including any changes (rockfall, rock slides, washouts) that may have occurred since the publication of the map or guidebook
- Packing a map, topo, or guidebook for reference, even if the party has done the route before
- Starting on time - many parties become lost or benighted because they assumed they could make up lost time
- Picking proper hiking or climbing partners - parties with clearly stronger-weaker partners are more likely to need a rescue if something goes wrong; if the more experienced partner is injured or killed, the less experienced one may not have the knowledge to evacuate
- First aid knowledge (preferably a Wilderness First Responder or similar certification) and supplies - in the event of an accident, definitive medical care could be hours or days in coming
- Knowledge and acceptance of medical conditions (including sports injuries) of all members of the party, so there are no surprises
- Knowledge of rescue techniques (especially in climbing situations), including haul systems
- Communications equipment - cell phones, GPS, satellite phones, signal fires, "SOS" distress signals visible from the air, mirrors for sunny days (as well as basic knowledge of Morse code).... all of these can be useful, but none are guaranteed
- Avoiding areas with loose rock, bad trail conditions, etc., and always assuming the worst could happen
- Respect for the feasibility of SAR ops - some inexperienced parties wrongly assume that if something goes wrong, they will be able to get rescued no matter what; not the case despite the best intentions of SAR staff
- Willingness to turn back if conditions are not right - a good climber will put ego aside and make a good judgment call when conditions are not right, saving their passion for a later date and thus being able to bag that summit (The 1996 Everest Disaster (and many subsequent ones) is a perfect example of NOT doing this)
- Many, many, many more
See further description from YOSAR here.
Climbing and safety
Many assume that, because of climbing's locations, that it is inherently dangerous. In fact, with the right knowledge and equipment, the opposite can be true.
As a guide, having taken kids on trips that involve everything from biking, hiking, and flat-water kayaking to climbing and tyrolean traverse, the majority of the first aid scenarios I've dealt with have had to do with the most seemingly mundane activities. Kids not paying attention and tripping on the hiking trail. Kids not paying attention and falling off their bikes. Kids not listening and tipping their kayak. The assumption would be that kids don't listen - truth be told, I've found adults to be far worse.
Climbing can be an incredibly safe activity, because certain systems and certain standards can be taken as gospel. Everything about climbing is based on physics - from drilling a solid bolt to placing a bomber piece of pro. If a climber learns and uses knowledge of climbing and protection-placing techniques, many unsafe situations can be avoided.
This study of the science behind common friction knots serves as an example of the many scientific studies which have been done on climbing gear and climbing systems. Petzl, one of the largest brands in the manufacture of rock climbing equipment, publishes extensive guides and advice on technical and product safety, free of charge.
That said, it is the seemingly non-climbing-related issues which often lead to accidents in climbing. The climbing itself is often very safe. But ignoring the issues listed above can lead to the need for an evacuation.
The American Alpine Club has published the Accidents in North American Mountaineering report annually for over 50 years, with the purpose of educating the climbing community about common mistakes which can result in severe injury, death, and/or SAR.
The true cost of SAR
• Climbing rescues cost somewhat more on average than other types of rescues, but climbers "provide greater volunteer support and pay more directly to offset rescue costs than do virtually all other recreational groups."
• At Yosemite National Park, a popular climbing destination, climbing rescues cost $456,000 from 2000 to 2004. Over the same period, day-hiker rescues cost $762,000 and backpacker rescues $613,000. Backpacking rescues averaged $3,800 each; climbing, $3,100; day hiking, $1,500.
Chopper rescues cost around US$2000 to US$6000 per incident, which the rescued party is responsible for. Standard insurance and travel insurance do not cover rescues. To assist climbers in covering evacuation costs, the American Alpine Club offers rescue insurance that covers chopper SAR missions and transport of remains in mountainous areas, up to 8000m. This is part of preparing for the event of an accident.
Everything about climbing is a judgment call - like pretty much everything else in life. It is a climber's individual responsibility to be aware of weather reports and snow/rock conditions, and to have the skill level to deal with them.
Climbers have to overcome ego and the desire to attain a goal in favor of safety and the ability to come back later.
Many climbers have lost friends and acquaintances to the mountains, myself included. We can prepare as much as we can but accidents do happen, just like they can happen to anyone in any situation. Most SAR workers are climbers themselves, and some of the most experienced athletes in the world have still fallen victim to an error in judgment or an unforseen change in conditions. Consider that the next time a person finds him or herself in a rescue situation - without SAR workers with climbing skills skills, they often would not make it back.
Climbing should never be strictly about ego or entertainment - the mountains have to be respected. Everything about it is a judgment call - like pretty much everything else in life.
I would ask that the public acknowledge that climbing is a legitimate pursuit of passion, and often an aid - not a hindrance - when it comes to rescue ops.
Just like it is a climber's individual responsibility to be aware of weather reports, and snow and rock conditions - and to have the skill level to deal with them.