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Survival: Mother Nature is inherently dangerous dangerous, so be prepared

by Chuck Smock

When it comes to experiencing a winter adventure in the High Sierra, a few minutes of preparation can help prevent hours of misery – or worse.

And if you really want to do as much as you can to make sure a winter outing doesn’t turn into a disaster, your planning will include much more than deciding what makes the final cut for that precious, limited space in your backpack.

Gunnery Sgt. Alvin McNeil has been teaching winter battle and survival courses at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport for three years. McNeil, perhaps as well as anyone, knows the pitfalls waiting for the unprepared in a mountainous, winter environment.

“This is a great place,” the 17-year Marine said of the Sierra Nevada. “For people who want to explore the backcountry, it’s certainly doable and it’s certainly enjoyable. But it’s also inherently dangerous.”

The key is learning to minimize risks and recognizing the potential for problems, McNeil said. He recommends seeking professional training or instruction before heading to the mountains.

“Mother Nature is relentless and she knows no mistakes,” McNeil said. “If you think you can conquer the mountain, you have a lesson coming. The best you can hope for is a tie. You ain’t conquering the mountain.”

McNeil added that a basic set of precautions should be addressed prior to every winter outing – whether it’s a five-day snowmobiling trip, an overnight cross country skiing tour or something as seemingly simple as the annual excursion to cut down a Christmas tree.

Giving potential rescuers as much information as possible about your predicted location and physical condition can be as important to your survival as anything you carry along with you.

Before you head into the backcountry, you should know where you’re going, when you are planning to return and your primary intended route of travel. You should leave this information in your vehicle, at home and with a friend or relative, McNeil said.

For longer trips or trips involving several people, it’s also a good idea to list the names and ages of everyone in the party, along with a description of clothing and boots being worn and a list of signaling devices being carried.

By leaving this information in at least two different places, you can decrease the amount of time it takes for people to start looking for you in the event of an emergency.

“The longer it takes to get a search party started, the less chance you have to survive,” McNeil said.

Pretrip preparations should also include assembling a winter survival kit, which is intended to satisfy your needs for shelter, fire, water, food and signaling devices.

“The two most important things are shelter and fire,” McNeil said. “In the first 24 hours, fire, shelter, water and signaling devices are essential.

“Fire and fuel is life. They give you heat and warmth and the ability to dry clothes and melt snow for drinking water. A small, portable stove with fuel is great.

“And shelter is just as important, especially in winter. A tent is fine, but all you really need is a snow shovel.”

Building a snow wall or digging a trench that allows you to get out of the wind is a good short-term solution for shelter.

In the event that you become lost or trapped outside in the winter, one of the simplest signaling devices you can use is marking a large “X” or “V” in the snow. McNeil said it’s best to stamp out one large “X” or “V” and then fill it with pine boughs, logs or rocks. The contrast in the shadows of the stamped out marker may be enough to catch the attention of a passing aircraft while you’re gathering the materials to fill in the letter. Three evenly spaced, similar signals are an internationally recognized request for help, McNeil said.

In solo situations, the decision to wait for help or to try to make it to safety is ultimately up to the individual, McNeil said.

“Leave only if you know where you are, where you want to go and if you have the ability to get there,” he said.

If you’re relatively sure food, water, shelter or help can be reached safely, then it’s decision time.

“You have to be convinced rescue is not coming,” McNeil said. “If you decide to travel, you need to know which direction and why. And you should develop a plan that includes what equipment to take with you and how to mark your trail.

“You should also try to predict the weather. If clouds are building, don’t move.”

Of course, the easiest way out of a bad situation is making sure you don’t get into one in the first place.

“The thing that gets more people in trouble is overestimating their ability and not understanding the inherent dangers of the outdoors,” said McNeil, who added that remaining calm gives an outdoors enthusiast his or her best chance for surviving a backcountry mishap. “If you run around like a chicken with its head cut off, you’re going to end up in the stew pot.

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