Saturday, December 18, 2010

Search & Rescue

Michelle Yu was a very experienced outdoor enthusiast who was preparing for an ascent of Argentina's Aconcagua, the highest mountain peak in the Americas at 22,841 feet, beating Mt. McKinley by nearly half a mile. As part of her preparation for the climb, she was hiking Mt. Baldy in southern California every week and had recently completed the ascent of several 14,000-foot peaks. To say that she had a good climbing and hiking resume would be an understatement. But even the best can get in trouble sometimes.

On December 4th, she set out for a training and conditioning hike and was seen by other hikers near the summit of the trail she chose that day. But that night, she didn't return. The following afternoon, a friend reported her missing, and the West Valley Search and Rescue unit was called into action.

Even though there was no information available about the route Michelle had taken into the mountains, her car was located and SAR teams were deployed to scour Goode Canyon, San Antonio Canyon, The Sierra Hut Trail, and the Devil's Backbone.

The search was difficult and slowed by very high winds and severe rain. At high elevations, the rain turned to snow and ice. The rock fall hazard was serious because of all the flowing water, with reports of very large boulders crashing down the canyons. But the search continued for the next three days, and spread out into new areas that had not already been searched. Additional SAR teams from all of California were called in to help.

Then a team being extracted from Fish Fork noticed something during their helicopter ride out of their area.   They put people on the ground to investigate and found that it was Ms. Yu. She was discovered in the same general drainage that the team had descended, but the drainage is a complex of three drainages that combine at the bottom and Ms. Yu was in the "sub drainage" that was adjacent to but out of sight of the one the team had been searching.

Apparently Michelle Yu had fallen 2,100 feet from the rugged trail above. How did that happen? Nobody knows for sure. The day of her hike had started out beautiful and sunny, but bad weather swept across the area later in the day, bringing rain, snow and ice. Could she simply have slipped and fallen as she was crossing the drainage, and tumbled more than 2,000 feet to her death? Maybe.

Could she have succumbed to hypothermia due to the cold, wet conditions and suffered a breakdown of judgement that took her into that steep drainage looking for a fast way to get off the mountain and reach warmer temperatures at a lower elevation? Maybe.

Could it be a combination of those two scenarios, or something else entirely? Maybe. Nobody knows for sure.

So what can we learn from this incident?
  • No matter how experienced you are (or maybe it's just that you think you are), accidents can happen. 
  • Going alone into the wilds is rewarding on some personal levels, but increases the risk all the time. 
  • It doesn't take much to kill a person. A misstep or a twisted ankle at the wrong time can send you over a cliff or tumbling down a steep ravine.
  • Always leave specific details about the trail you're going to hike, and then stick to that plan. If you deviate and find yourself the object of a search, it will take additional time before rescuers locate you. 

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