It’s canyoneering season. Waterfalls, slot canyons, rock and ropes… As my mom would say, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Which is why we have back up plans.
Canyoneering requires more safety planning than hiking. Once you pull the first rope, there’s no backtracking. Canyons block telecommunication signals. So, while we carry a cell phone and a PLB, there’s no guarantee that the signal will work. Canyons also block access for rescue planes or helicopters.
So, we double check our gear and travel plans, get good training, and get good beta. First, the goal is to not get in trouble. We travel cautiously and within our skill. We read maps and the GPS carefully, as many canyon emergencies happen with hiking into the wrong canyon. Second, we aim to self-rescue if we do get in trouble. We use ”releasable rigging” so that one of us can rescue the other. We pack a first aid and bivy kit. As a final back-up, we have a search and rescue activation plan.
I’m sharing this in case it helps someone else to develop a safe rescue plan.
A big thank you to the officers at Utah’s San Juan County Sherriff’s office for helping us to edit this plan.
So, here’s the bones of the plan. Please comment if there’s anything that would make this plan smarter or safer.
Pick two reliable people to be emergency contacts. They need to be able to check for messages twice daily and reliably answer the phone on trip days. Advise them that you will contact them, but that the contact method may vary. We can usually text or email, but never know the bandwidth until we’re there. The Coverage app is helpful, but not fully reliable.
For each trip provide your contacts with:
- Name and number of local sherriff’s dept.
- Names of travelers and number in group. Description of travelers, including clothing.
- Personal locator beacon (PLB) or Spot identification number
- Any serious pre-existing medical conditions that could complicate a rescue. E.g. diabetes, seizure disorder, clotting disorder, or mobility limitations.
Expected time in and time out of canyon.
Timing of the check-in message. Pick a outside deadline for safe return. Your emergency contact should be able to call for help confidently, rather than wondering if they should wait another hour.
GPS coordinates and names of planned canyon entry and exit. If canyon has a flash flood risk, note that you may move out of the canyon to high ground if able to do so.
- Vehicle location(s) and description(s). GPS coordinates are preferable for vehicle location. The scout plane will look for vehicles to confirm that there is actually need for a rescue.
- If carrying walkie talkies, the channel that will be used for emergencies.
- Description of any highly visible gear that a rescue plane could spot — eg color of backpack or tent.
Instruct the emergency contacts to do the following if you miss a check in:
- Call each other to ensure that neither emergency contact has gotten a check-in message.
- Then, call the local sheriff with an emergency search and rescue request.
- Provide the relevant information from the above checklist.
- Take action but don’t worry. Search and Rescue (SAR) will act as soon as they can do so safely. If there are storms or it is after dark, rescue may have to wait until the morning. We pack prepared to spend the night.
Communicating Check In Calls
We don’t want to worry our families or activate a false alarm. We’d be real jerks if we bothered Search and Rescue just because we couldn’t get cell phone reception. So, we cultivate multiple methods of communication. A cell phone booster enhances voice and text reception. With the right know-how, you can send an email through HAM radio. And an internet satellite works wherever we can get a view of the Southern sky.
Between these options, we expect to have reliable back country communication. And if we don’t, then we’ll drive until we do. Because there is no way that I’m going to worry my family unnecessarily.
Activating a PLB
The sheriff’s office had helpful advice on using a PLB or Spot device.
- If self-rescue fails, activate the PLB immediately. Rescuers need time to arrive, and often can’t travel at night.
- Once the PLB is activated, set out a reflector or flare. When a PLB is activated, the sheriff responds by sending a plane to look for proof of victims. They don’t want to send out a team for a false alarm. The pilot looks for a flare to confirm that there are people who need help. They recommended a space blanket as a reflector.
- If night is falling, still set off the PLB. While rescuers probably can’t arrive until daylight, a night’s notice will give them time to gather a crew and equipment. Since most SAR crews are volunteers, they need time to respond.
- Check weather and flash flood risk before entering a canyon.
- Be prepared to spend the night before rescue arrives. Pack a space blanket, warm and weather protective layers, and extra food and water. If in a flash flood prone area, move to high ground.
- Have reflectors or flares. See above.
- Survival data indicates that people survive when they plan to do so. Plan that it may be days until your rescue. Seek shelter and budget food and water accordingly. Women usually need less food than men due to a lower metabolism and more body fat. Drink urine if you have to. Aron Ralston would advise doing this while urine is dilute, instead of waiting for dehydration to set in. (As for the “ick” factor, I’ve already swum through a canyon that had a dead goat floating in it. By choice. I’ll drink pee if it keeps me alive.)
- Bring a basic first aid kit and know how to use it. Backcountry guides provide helpful lists of recommended items. Some double-duty items: a shoelace can work as a tourniquet. A coffee filter can be used to light a fire for warmth or to filter urine for drinking. We keep duct tape wrapped around our water bottles. Duct tape can repair gear or patch a wound. A space blanket prevents hypothermia, shields from rain, and signals for rescue.
- Sign in and out of trail logs so that rescue personnel can verify a last known location.
- Have a group emergency plan. Have a list of the emergency gear. Don’t keep all the emergency gear in 1 pack.
- If an emergency occurs, assign roles for group members. Eg. signalling the rescue plane, making a shelter, acquiring water, etc.
Anything else that’s key to a good rescue plan?
As for why we go to all this trouble, stay tuned for the canyon pictures. Some of the most beautiful places on Earth are in the slots of the Colorado Plateau.