There has been a rash of Search and Rescue incidents around the Sea to Sky Corridor lately, as is typically the case with the warming weather. One incident in particular involving a trail runner got me thinking about how those of us who travel fast and light can mitigate potential risks.
It’s obvious that some of our runs require much more equipment and planning than others. Venturing into Hanes Valley can hardly be compared to a short run around Lynn Loop in North Vancouver’s Lynn Canyon Park. But where do we draw the line between a ‘short’ run and a ‘long’ one?
No matter the distance, there will always be potential risks when heading out on the trails. There is no border delineating the ‘backcountry’ from the rest. It’s not uncommon for North Shore Rescue to be called out to the very popular Grouse Grind or nearby BCMC trail.
That’s why I’ve begun to approach every run in the same way by asking myself the same question, “what’s the worst that could happen today?”
The answer is always a little different, of course. Here is how I’ve answered that question on a few of my recent runs of varying lengths and conditions.
3 Different Routes, 1 Question
Last week, I hit the Grouse Mountain trail for a few laps up and down the BCMC and nearby trails, starting around 3pm. I figured it would take me about an hour and a half per lap, including the descent, so I estimated that I’d be done by about 6pm.
The sun doesn’t set in the summer until well past 9pm, but it can get darker much earlier than that in the trees. Of course, I would have the option of quitting after just one or two laps. There is a water fountain to refill my water at the resort after each lap, but it was quite hot that day so I wasn’t sure how much I’d need to drink en route.
Before heading out I asked myself, “what’s the worst that could happen today?”
- I could roll an ankle or hurt myself in someway that required me to sit down on the trail and wait for assistance. Would I have enough clothing to remain comfortable while I waited?
- I could accidentally go off-trail (highly unlikely, given my experience, but possible) and then injure myself or simply get lost. Would I have cell phone service to call for help? If my phone didn’t work for any reason, would anyone know where I was? What if it gets dark?
- It could take me much longer than anticipated to complete my planned workout. Or, I may have felt great and decided to do an extra lap or two. Would I have enough food and nutrition?
Search and Rescue is all volunteer-based, and it’s not uncommon for SAR members to take a couple of hours to mobilize and reach injured hikers even on a highly accessible trail like the BCMC. A light jacket, along with a small space blanket, can go a long way in these situations.
I felt pretty confident that cell phone coverage wouldn’t be an issue for me in this case, but I did ensure that my phone was fully charged and on airplane mode before I started. I texted my girlfriend Audrée with a brief message to let her know where I was going and my estimated time of arrival back home. I brought a light jacket, a space blanket, some extra food and a little more water than I thought I would need for the first lap, and a small headlamp (my pack has a small whistle built-in).
Not only was I prepared for the absolute worst case scenario (calling Search and Rescue or needing to have Audrée call on my behalf if I didn’t make it home), but I was prepared to help anyone else in need that I might have come across along the way.
Several weeks prior, I’d been planning on running from Lynn Canyon Park out to Norvan Falls with my friend Karl. I was tapering for an upcoming race so we were going to take it pretty easy, completing the out-and-back ~18 km route in about 2.5 hours, starting mid-morning.
I’d done this route many times before and it tends to be quite popular on a weekend. But it’s also fairly remote and has very limited cell phone coverage. It was quite hot, but there is plenty of water along the route that could be treated.
So what’s the worst that could have happened that day? As always on the trails, one of us could easily roll an ankle (or much worse), or we could get lost (again, unlikely given my familiarity with the route). Would we be prepared to walk back out? If needed, would we be able to call for help?
Given the additional risks on this route, I decided to bring a little bit of extra gear. In addition to a heavier jacket, space blanket, and plenty of food, I brought a UV water filter along with a Lifestraw as a backup. Again, my cell phone was fully charged and on airplane mode, but I also brought a Garmin inReach so that I would be able to call for help via satellite if out of cell coverage. I also brought a small first aid kit in which I have a fire starter kit and a pocket knife and of course a small headlamp. Both Karl and I notified our significant others of our trip plan, including who we were with, where we were going, where we had parked, and when we could be expected back.
Again, I was prepared for the worst case scenario of having to call Search and Rescue by satellite device, but would also be comfortable having to slowly make my way back in case of a minor injury. I was also fully prepared, as always, to help anyone else in need too.
North Lynn Peak
Back in May, my friend Joel and I decided to summit North Lynn Peak, making our way up Lynn Creek from the ocean at Harbourview Park in North Vancouver before climbing up to Lynn Lookout and along the ridge. We then planned on descending via Hydraulic Creek to run back out along Fisherman’s trail in Lower Seymour and back down Lynn Creek to the car.
It would be a big day, to say the least! But we had been slowly building up our training volume all season and felt that we were more than prepared. What’s the worst that could happen?
While we’d both done the route before, neither of us had been that far along the ridge this season so we weren’t entirely sure about the changing conditions. Winter conditions can persist well into the summer-months at higher altitudes and snow tends to melt differently depending on the aspect and the tree cover. There are also quite a few environmental conditions that can create micro-climates in the North Shore mountains. So we did some additional research by looking for recent trip reports online and by asking friends who we knew had been in the area recently for additional intel.
We’d planned to get an early start, knowing that the route could take anywhere from 5-6 hours in the best of cases and much longer if we ran into any problems. We both provided comprehensive trip plans to our significant others, this time with some additional information on not only our planned route but on possible backup options in case things didn’t go as planned.
A particular challenge with this route would be the lack of fresh water once we began to climb the ridge from Lynn Canyon until we reached Hydraulic Creek on the way back down into Lower Seymour. This meant bringing plenty of extra water along with a water filter.
Given that there was reportedly still a fair bit of snow near Lynn Peak, we brought trail crampons just to be safe. In addition to a headlamp, first aid kit, and plenty of nutrition, we packed some extra clothing, including a compressible down jacket, and a hard shell in case it started to rain. I decided to bring some lightweight poles as well to help on the climb.
We preloaded the route to our GPS watches along with a map and compass as a backup. Not only was my phone charged and on airplane mode, but I brought a small battery backup device.
We actually both brought our own inReach GPS communication devices, allowing us to message each other should we get separated, along with emergency bivvys in case we had to spend the night. Had we gotten lost or considerably slowed down by a minor injury, we likely could have continued on well into the evening and even throughout the night until we made it out safely (trekking poles can be used as a crutch or possibly even for first aid). But sometimes the best thing to do is to find a safe place to stop and wait for daylight.
The absolute worst case scenario would have been to have to call Search and Rescue using one of our GPS communication devices. As Joel knows all too well being a volunteer with Lions Bay SAR himself, not only can it take quite a bit of time for volunteers to reach more remote areas like this but the only possibility for extraction is often by helicopter long-line rescue. Since the helicopters can only fly when visibility is good, these kinds of rescues aren’t possible during extremely poor weather or at night (unless the military is called in from Victoria for extreme cases). Even a call to SAR can mean first spending a very cold night in the mountains, as this local trail runner recently found out.
Everything worked out exactly as planned and we had a great day in the mountains, arriving back at our car 5.5 hours after we’d started. But we were prepared for almost any eventuality.
Taking the Essentials
North Shore Rescue provides a list of the 10 essentials. But as they point out, this list is far from exhaustive – it’s just a start. You’ll need to add to this list according to the season, the specific challenges of your route, as well as your own personal needs.
In addition to the basics, like extra food, clothing, and water, along with a headlamp and navigation aids, I’ll often carry bug spray, extra sunscreen, and even bear deterrents. In the colder months or when travelling in the alpine, I might bring waterproof pants, chemical hand warmers, heavy gloves, and crampons. Fortunately, all of my Salomon running packs come with a whistle built-in so I don’t even have to think about that one.
For me, these are just tools to help me to troubleshoot – not if, but when – the unexpected occurs.
Let’s say I get lost on a remote trail. I could then use my GPS watch‘s ‘track back’ feature to follow virtual bread crumbs back the way I came. If my watch dies or malfunctions, I could use my cell phone to navigate a preloaded map using GPS even while it’s on airplane mode. Failing that, I could reference a map and compass. A hardshell would keep me warm and dry if it started to rain, with my headlamp (and backup headlamp if travel in the dark was planned) lighting my way.
If visibility is poor or I’ve been rendered immobile, extra clothing and an emergency bivvy should shelter me for the night. I may be able to start a small fire and address any wounds with a first aid kit. A pocket knife could help me to cut small branches for a shelter or fire (gear modifications could also be made, along with a small supply of duct tape – something that is actually is needed quite often on regular training runs).
Worst case scenario, I can use my satellite communication device to call for help. When SAR volunteers arrive, I can then use my whistle (and bear bangers, if I have them) to help them find my exact location. But calling SAR should be a last resort, not simply a ‘Plan B’. You need to have backup plans (and a backup for those plans) and carrying the essentials is just the start. SAR is not a taxi!
Now consider instead how quickly things can spiral out of control when you’re not prepared: Simply rolling your ankle could mean a 3-hour run turning into an 8-hour hike. Without a headlamp, you might soon be forced to use your cellphone as a light, quickly draining its battery. Once it dies, you’re likely to grind to a halt and, without extra clothing could become hypothermic within a couple of hours. Without a cell phone, you now have no way to call for help, assuming you had cell service in the first place.
The lack of light is the single highest cause of calls for NSR. So while you won’t carry the same essentials on all of your runs, it just seems like common sense to always carry a headlamp – no matter the route.
So next time you’re preparing for a run – whether it’s a short, urban jaunt or a long backcountry adventure – ask yourself the same question. What’s the worst that could happen today? As long as you’re prepared, you’re sure to have fun no matter where the day takes you.
This post was written by Run Wild Vancouver President Jeff Pelletier. What else is essential for you? Tell us in the comments below!