Stay Safe When You’re in the Wild

This guy is glad he wore a helmet today.

This guy is glad he wore a helmet today.

With the widely publicized skiing death of Natasha Richardson, there has been an explosion of information on staying safe on the slopes. Some of it good, some of it bad, and some of it totally irrelevant. I’ve spent my whole life running around the mountains of the West in both winter and summer, and have picked up the keys to having a safe, fun time.

This is of course not a substitute for traveling with a professional guide or instructor, and shouldn’t replace your own common sense.

1. Start small, start smart. If you’re new to an activity, whether it’s skiing, climbing or even fishing, there isn’t a substitute for having the wisdom and guidance of a trained professional. There’s nothing worse than floundering around for hours only to realize you’re doing it completely wrong. I spent two weeks in Montana once trying to teach myself to flyfish. I didn’t catch a thing. After one hour with a guide I was pulling out enough trout to feed my whole crew for the rest of the trip. Once you master the basics, you can slowly progress to more advanced terrain and techniques.

2. Stay aware, stay alive. The mountains will give you years and years of great experiences, but remember, you are there on their terms. If the conditions are bad, you have to be able to cash in and walk away. Whether it’s avalanches, bad weather, animals or any other number of things, you’ll get warning signs. All I can say is don’t ignore them. This is the same for experts, beginners or even casual observers. I once spent three days in Southern Utah huddled with four people inside a tent because we got trapped in a thunderstorm, and the whole desert turned into a raging river. We had to scramble up a hill, and ended up on  about 100 square feet of dirt. If you’ve ever spent three days in a tent with other wet, smelly people, you know how fun that is.

3. Practice makes Perfect. Even the best piece of safety or rescue gear isn’t going to help you if you don’t know how to use it. Before you are ever in a situation where you will need it, you should practice enough to know it all by heart. In lots of cases, seconds literally count (the window to rescue avalanche victims is only 15 minutes, for example), so you don’t want to spend time fussing with your gear. Practice tying your ropes, or setting up your tent as well as basic first aid like splints and bandages, and that will make even a family outing much more enjoyable. As the stakes increase, though, the time spent practicing becomes even more important. I’ve luckily never had to do a beacon search to rescue someone in an avalanche, but I spend a few hours every couple weeks practicing at my local beacon park.

4. Protect your head. This one comes last, but is arguably the most important. If you’re going to be traveling at more than 10 miles an hour, or you’re going to be 5 feet off the ground, you should be wearing a helmet. Modern helmets are comfortable, stylish, and can be both warmer than a hat, or cooler than your bare head, depending on the season. I almost never go out on my skis or on my bike without one on. No matter how easy I think I’m going to take it that day. Plus, where else are you going to mount your helmet cam?

Here is a video of someone doing it right. Sage Cattabriga-Alosa is a professional skier, from my hometown. Here he’s wearing a helmet, traveling with a guide, and knows what’s going on around him. It’s the perfect example of preparation meeting opportunity.

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