Preparation and perseverance make all the difference

Posted: Friday, January 19, 2007

JUNEAU — Josh Shrader knows what it’s like to feel helpless. On a July 2001 hike to the icefields above Juneau, he got lost in a fog bank and fell down a crevasse. He spent almost two days stuck in the wild with a broken wrist and a gash on his face that wouldn’t stop bleeding.

But he lived.

People get lost in the woods around Juneau all the time. Most find their way out on their own. Others need to be rescued, and sometimes help doesn’t arrive in time.

Experts say the difference between life and death can depend on several factors: luck, preparation — and a simple refusal to die.

Capt. George Reifenstein of Capital City Fire and Rescue said two of the most important factors are preparation and the ability to stay calm.

If you didn’t do one, you better have the other.

“There’s a very common thread among survivors. They have an awareness they’re in a bad situation. They have some level of knowledge. They have some kind of survival capability,” said Reifenstein, a specialist at trail rescue.

“Typical survivors have a very strong sense of family and a strong core sense of beliefs. They have a very strong reason to survive, and they’re fighters.”

Backcountry travelers should check their location by landmarks or navigation tools such as compasses and a maps.

“Take a compass reading before you step off the trail into the thickets. Look for landmarks as you walk so you can see when you backtrack on the right trail,” Reifenstein said.

The first step in good preparation is dressing right, Reifenstein said. He recommends synthetic materials that wick moisture away from the body and dry quickly.

“Cotton kills,” he said. “You don’t go out wearing cotton socks or sweat pants. They get heavy when they get wet. It robs heat from your body.”

Reifenstein recommended layers of clothing with a waterproof outer shell. The layers not only trap air efficiently, but allow the wearer to adapt to changing temperatures.

He also recommends a good hat and sturdy waterproof boots with lots of ankle support.

Two months ago, Douglas snowboarder Jay Blair cursed himself for lack of preparation after he wandered in the wrong direction from Eaglecrest Ski Area.

He spent hours crawling through the snow before being rescued the next day. Blair said a survival kit, even a simple one with a space blanket, a couple of high-calorie energy pills and a fire-starting kit, would have been a big help.

“If I had it, I could have made fire. I would have been fine. It would have been a lot easier to make it through the night,” he said. I’m lucky, I shouldn’t have made it off that mountain.”

Reifenstein also suggests a pack with a cell phone, a first aid kit, liquids, extra gloves, snacks, a space blanket or tarp, parachute cord, fire starters, a flashlight or headlamp and possibly a signal flare.

Also, always remember to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Shrader even recommends giving someone a list of items you have in your pack.

If all else fails, stay calm. Note your surroundings and personal condition.

Try to put up some kind of indicator that you are lost and make a shelter to get out of the wind.

Next, think about heat, water and food. Try to get a fire started and gather material to keep it going. Give yourself chores to do like staying clean and dry. Stay put and stay positive. Keep your mind active.

Shrader, now a team leader with Juneau Mountain Rescue, agrees.

“I would say 90 percent of it is a choice, choosing not to die, choosing not to give up on yourself,” he said.

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