Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lost Boy Scout

Jared Ropelato is missing, somewhere in the heavily forested mountains of northeastern Utah. Jared is a 12-year-old Boy Scout, who was on a campout with his troop when he disappeared during a hike.

This kind of thing has happened before. Back in August 2004, a 12-year-old Scout named Garrett Bardsley went missing in the Uinta Mountains of Utah during a camping trip with his scout troop when his father sent him back to camp after the boy got his pants and shoes wet while fishing. That was the last anyone ever saw of Garrett. In memory of their lost son, the Bardsley family established the Garrett Bardsely Foundation, which helps locate missing children. The Foundation has stepped in to join the search for young Jared Ropelato.

These two cases — Jared Ropelato and Garrett Bardsley are disturbingly similar. Young Scouts out for a dream trip to camp and hike and fish with their buddies, under the supervision of Scout leaders, and in some cases even with the parents along. How, then, can this happen? How can a young man go missing from among a crowd of other boys, and from beneath the watchful eye of adult leaders? That's a question that should disturb us.

But here's the answer — it just happens. It is SOOO easy to get lost! I've interviewed experienced backcountry enthusiasts who have become lost while hiking trails they considered to be virtually in their back yard — familiar trails they had hiked many times before. Then suddenly, they found themselves in an unfamiliar place. Maybe they missed a critical fork in the trail. Maybe they were overtaken by darkness or a storm and lost their way. Maybe they just weren't paying attention. But it happens. CONFESSION: Much as I hate to admit it, it happened to me once!

I feel fairly secure in saying that if you have never been lost, you just haven't spent enough time in the wilderness yet. Or you're living in denial.

It's only a matter of time, so the important issues are:
  1. How to try to avoid it
  2. How to prepare for it when it does happen
    Trying to avoid getting lost consists mostly of maintaining situational awareness.
    • Always know where you are in relation to where you want to be.
    • Use a detailed topographic map and compass to make sure you're heading the right direction.
    • Periodically take a "fix" on topographic features (peaks, bodies of water, etc.) to verify your location on the map.
    • Watch your backtrail so you will know what the scene will look like when you are returning on the same trail.
    • Mark the trail with brightly colored pieces of survey tape tied to trees or hanging from bushes at eyeball level. Leave the next mark while you can still see the last one. Remove these markings when you leave the area.
    Preparing for that inevitable event when you discover that you are lost involves wearing the right kind of clothing and carrying the right kind of gear.
    • Top priority when lost is to get found (duh!), so carry signaling equipment so you can call for help. That includes a signal whistle, mirror, cell phone (on the off chance that there is cell coverage in the area), small two-way radio to communicate with others in your party, a GPS personal locator beacon (PLB) or SPOT Satellite Messenger.
    • Wear clothing that will help keep you alive if you end up spending the night (or several) awaiting rescue. Merino wool base layer, synthetic fleece insulation layer, windproof and water repellent shell. The jacket should feature a hood, or carry a wool watch cap to cover your head. 
    • Carry an emergency shelter — emergency blanket or bivvy, pocket poncho, etc. 
    • Have a knife and some lightweight cordage (550 line is ideal), so you can make the structure for an emergency shelter of natural materials in a suitable location (dry ground, as level as possible, away from widowmakers or other threats). Be knowledgeable how to do this. 
    • Be equipped to start a fire to be used for warmth as well as signaling.
    • When you realize you're lost, stop immediately. Move to open ground where you can establish an emergency camp where you will be seen by searchers. Start signaling efforts. 
    Everyone, kids and adults alike, should be well trained and well equipped before taking off for a camping trip, a fishing trip, or a hike in the backcountry.

    Hopefully, the news will be positive with regard to Jared Ropelato. Let his experience be the catalyst that moves us in the direction of better preparation, both for ourselves and for those we care about.

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