Surviving the elements |

Surviving the elements

Laura Brown
Special to The Union

Jon Pritchett knows firsthand what it's like to have a close call.

Once he forgot a repair item that forced him to push his bike for six hours — turning a four-hour ride into a 10-hour day. He also forgot his rain jacket. It rained hard.

His body was soaked when temperatures dropped to near freezing.

His fingers were so frost-nipped that his smartphone didn't recognize them as human when he called for help.

"When my friend got to me on Highway 20, I couldn't even talk. I obviously survived but it could have been much worse," Pritchett said.

Being prepared and having the right mind-set can be the difference between life and death when mishaps arise on a backcountry trail.

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"Most people get into trouble by being unprepared. Many of us lead busy lives and are always rushed or in a hurry to get out the door for a ride. This rushing leads people to forget to pack the right gear or check the weather. All it takes is a forgotten tool or one piece of clothing to create a recipe for disaster," said Pritchett, chair of Bicyclists of Nevada County.

Mountain bicyclists can reach remote places far from home or car in a short amount of time. Carrying the right repair equipment if something goes wrong and gear to survive a night outside is essential, says Pritchett.

In the first four months of 2014, Search and Rescue received 19 calls in Nevada County and neighboring counties. That number has already surpassed last year's total — 18 calls for the entire year in 2013.

Earlier this month, a runner from Modesto survived two nights in freezing, wet conditions after taking a wrong turn on a trail in the Foresthill area, wearing nothing but shorts, a light windbreaker and running shoes.

A week later, a woman was killed when a train struck her while she jogged on the tracks near the Truckee River. She was wearing headphones and listening to loud music and didn't hear the train.

"This year's been busy so far … We've had a bunch in the Castle Pass area," said Sargent Sam Brown, who supervises Nevada County Sheriff Search and Rescue team.

Search and Rescue has received seven calls for help to the Castle Pass area near Donner Summit where people commonly get lost in snowy conditions. Night falls and temperatures drop.

Suddenly the highway noise and lights of civilization at Boreal Ski Resort drop out of sight. People all too often stumble into an unfamiliar drainage and find themselves turned around.

While each Search and Rescue case is different, there is a common theme — many incidents could be prevented if people took some basic precautions.

"If you're going out just for a day hike, you should have at least food and water," said Brown, who recommends packing enough for a couple days.

People get into trouble when they start losing energy and become dehydrated.

Always remember to check the forecast and avalanche report before heading out.

Have a plan and share that plan with someone — including the estimated start and end time and locations of a trip. Loved ones are urged to call Search and Rescue as soon as someone is suspected missing.

"The sooner we get the phone call that someone is missing, the better," said Brown.

In 24 hours, the possible radius of a lost person grows from seven miles to 70 — becoming almost unsearchable.

Today's technology has helped make the task of finding people easier for Search and Rescue. Most calls to 911 from cellphones automatically triangulate coordinates for rescue teams. GPS and personal beacons have also become common. Make sure the GPS is in good working order and has plenty of battery power and know how to use it. As a backup plan, a map and compass are time-tested guides as long as the user has the skill set to use them.

"A lot of times searches are just rescues because they let us know where they are at," said Scot Woodland, a tracker and Search and Rescue volunteer.

Woodland always carries a lighter in his pocket and a knife in his pack, along with a little newspaper and kindling to make a fire, some rope, first aid kit, food, water, jacket and a beanie if the weather turns.

When lost, it's best to focus energy on setting up a camp and shelter, Woodland says.

"The minute you know you're lost, stay put," Woodland said, one of the first things he teaches youth enrolled in a program called Fox Walkers.

Torben Eriksen, a volunteer for Search and Rescue for six years, has witnessed many survival stories. Eriksen spent years in survival training, covering 2,400 miles in Greenland under extreme conditions with dog sleighs while serving in Denmark's military special forces.

While being reckless and unprepared is the biggest mistake people make when headed to the wilderness, over and over, Eriksen has witnessed mental toughness and the will to live as the key to survival when people find themselves in a place unforeseen.

"People who want to will survive much better," Eriksen said, referring to the book, "The Jungle is Neutral" by Freddie Spencer Chapman. The British adventurer-naturalist, who spent three and a half years in the jungles of Malaya hiding from the Japanese during WW II, carried with him a simple philosophy: 'There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.'

It's not about being the biggest or the most highly trained survivalist, it's about being open to what is available and making use of resources nature has to offer, said Eriksen.

"For me it has an awful lot to do with your mindset … Nature is not against you when you're out there. It's just doing what it does. You just have to roll with the punches and not take it personal."

Contact Freelance Writer Laura Brown at or 530-913-3067.

On the Web:

REI will teach a wilderness first aid and backcountry navigation with map and compass class this weekend. For more information:

Outdoor safety tips:

Daily Avalanche reports:

Nevada County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue:

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