Friday, December 21, 2012

The View From Above

While the end of the world is likely not coming, the snow is!! For those of you who love to go out and play, camp, hike, or ski in the white stuff, here is a great write-up by BAMRU's Alex Grishaver on how to help get spotted should you loose your direction crossing snowy terrain:

Ever wonder what a helicopter pilot sees while flying over a wintry wilderness area? On a recent Tahoe search, we got some compelling visual evidence of what's easy and difficult to see from the air --  with important lessons for all you outdoorsy folk.

These shots were taken from the air by a local deputy in the South Lake Tahoe area (specifically, near Upper Velmer Lake), where we had, thankfully, just made contact with a lone hiker who'd been pinned down in the first storm of the season. The helicopter was probably between 200-300' above the ground. What do you see in this first photo?

Well, hopefully you see… trees and snow, of course. A stream. Some very high-contrast shadows. And tracks! You may spot some people (or you may start to infer where they are based on the location of tracks). But you have to admit, people are pretty difficult to make out here. Even in when a helicopter is hovering in a stationary position, there's plenty to distract: vibrations; glare; reflections; etc.

Here’s another photo taken a minute later:

In this last photo, you might be able to make out one individual.

In fact, there are 7 other rescuers behind a cluster of trees, chatting with the hiker -- who was in fine condition, but who had been tent-bound for 5 days and was facing, at best, a 10-mile slog through 4-foot snow drifts in trail-runners if we hadn't found him. In this particular search, crews on the ground made contact with the hiker, who saw the helicopter drop them on a ridge and then used a whistle to alert us. The helicopter crew didn't actually see the hiker until after we'd made contact.

Yes, the photos aren't of the highest resolution. But the deputy who snapped these shots attested to the great difficulty of seeing us, only a few hundred feet below him. And the helicopter crew has way more visual information to process than what’s captured within the small “window” of these photos.

It's hard to see people from the air.  However, tracks stand out well on fresh snow, and stomping a message or pattern is surprisingly effective, quick and easy.  If possible, you should still try to attract attention with bright, geometric patterns in a clearing.  High-contrast patterns also work in other environments: spreading lightly colored gear against a dark background (or vice versa) can assist you in getting attention when you need it.

Have fun, and stay safe!

Written by Alex Grishaver, Edited by Matt Jacobs, Photo Credit: Deputy D. Frisby, CHP

Monday, December 3, 2012

BAMRU is Recruiting!


The Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit (BAMRU) is looking for mountaineers and people with wilderness medical training who enjoy the outdoors, teamwork, physical challenge and helping other people.

BAMRU is currently ramping up for its 2013 recruiting season. If you are interested in Search and Rescue and want to come learn more about our team/recruiting process please join us for one of the three scheduled Bay Area recruiting events. Several BAMRU members will be present to discuss and answer questions about the team and recruiting process.

RECRUITING EVENTS (Look for BAMRU members in red uniforms):
Dec. 12th   7-9 pm
Pacific Coast Brewing Co.
Mountain View
Dec. 17th   7-9 pm
Tied House
San Francisco
Dec. 19th   7-9 pm
Southern Pacific Brewing Co.
                                                Stop by anytime.  BAMRU members will be there from 7-9pm.

BAMRU is a volunteer wilderness search and rescue team specialized for operations involving difficult terrain, challenging weather conditions, or high altitude. We are based in the San Francisco Bay Area and respond throughout California as an accredited member of the Mountain Rescue Association, a FEMA and California OES Type I search and rescue resource and is a volunteer branch of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.

BAMRU members are men and women who share a desire to put their specialized outdoors skills to use in the service of people missing or injured in the wilderness. BAMRU members are climbers, skiers, mountaineers and backpackers. Self-sufficiency is a trademark of BAMRU. Members are prepared to operate in the field autonomously and without support, for up to 72 hours. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Teams That Play Together, Stay Together

Members of our leadership team having fun in Alaska
photo credit: Bill Parker
I thought it might be nice to take a moment before the rush of the holiday season and upcoming busy winter training schedule to shed a little light on a side of SAR that we don't always talk about in blogs, updates and training summaries, and that is the amazing sense of camaraderie that grows from working with a group of such capable and reliable folks.

Semi-Colin and Ben on a Thanksgiving trip to Red Rocks
photo credit: Callie Hintzen
Companies and organizations who want to build camaraderie among their staff can hire outside professionals to come in and provide bonding exercises likes trust falls, ropes courses and nature hikes.  For a few hours or maybe a weekend, staff get to play together to develop trust, respect, loyalty and communication skills.  As SAR team members, we get to experience this kind of team building a minimum of one weekend a month.  We rely on one another to hold our weight over a 1,200 foot cliff with a litter and a patient.  We count on each other to get to a search and back safely in the middle of night.  We also go through some pretty stressful situations together and support each other through the aftermath.  
Enjoying the view photo credit: John Chang

The result is not only a cohesive team that can work together effectively and seamlessly during a call out or an emergency situation, but also a network of about 50 or so like-minded new friends to hang out with and go on adventures with.  In fact, we even had to start a separate mailing list for social events due to the high volume of invites, evites and outdoor trip planning.

Eszter, Chris and Abi laughing on a Sierra Club snow camping trip
photo credit: Emilie Cortes
This sense of camaraderie extends well beyond our own team as well and reaches into the entire SAR community. We are all sort of held together by this common mission and common goal.

Of course working in stressful situations with many people who tend be leaders rather than followers, it isn't always just warm and fuzzy.  There are difficulties encountered, lots of debriefing, logistics that need improving and there is always room for growth and improvement.  But reflecting back on the year, it is safe to say that despite any hiccups or logistical glitches, we are constantly working on ways to be better and to remember why it is we're doing this; someone is missing, and they need our help.

Happy December everyone, it's been a great year, here's to making 2013 even better!      

Tyler and Woody on a climbing trip in Yosemite
photo credit: Tyler Phelan

Monday, November 12, 2012

Recent Searches

The first wave of cold weather and snow in the mountains in addition to some local searches made for a busy month for BAMRU.  Below is an overview of our last month and the corresponding news articles.  As always, BAMRU was honored to work with our neighboring SAR teams.

10/11:  BAMRU responded to a search in San Mateo County for a local missing man.

10/22: BAMRU called to assist in a mutual aid search in Alpine County for two missing hunters.

10/24: Mutual aid search in El Dorado country for missing hiker.

10/28:  BAMRU responded to a mutual aid call for an overdue hiker in Fresno County.

11/3:  BAMRU responded to an in-county call for a missing 67 year old man who was later found to be alive and well outside of the search area.

11/5: BAMRU responded to a call out for a missing hiker in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Technical Trainings

BAMRU has had a wonderful fall so far and suddenly winter is upon us!  We enjoyed what seems to have been the last of the warm and beautiful weather in the mountains with a few technical and alpine trainings (more on the alpine trainings to come!).

First we stayed local and refreshed our basic technical rescue skills.  We reviewed anchoring systems, mainline lowers, raises, rigging and pick-offs at our Redwood City facility (courtesy of the San Mateo Sheriff's Office) before moving to Mori Point where we got to run live systems over the edge.

Later we ventured to Yosemite for our advanced technical rescue training.  It was a warm and beautiful weekend in the valley!  We spent three days alternating between classroom learning and running systems in one of our favorite places to train.  We ran two line systems, first with the litter in a horizontal orientation and the next day, vertically (pike and pivot).  On day three was the grand finale of systems; a Kootenay highline over the Merced.

These trainings take a lot of logistical planning, safety precautions and time to execute.  Many thanks to the BAMRU team members and leadership who organized and proctored us for these invaluable exercises.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Little Radio That Could

Operation Puxing 777 Retrieval (Photo Credit: Tyler Phelan)
Summer is almost officially over, and the BAMRU blog has been quiet, mostly because we've been outside soaking up the sunshine and mountain tops sans snow and ice.  As a new season approaches some of us are more ready than others to start scanning gear catalogues for fleeces, puffies and split boards.  If, like me, you're not quite ready to check out the fall & winter gear, perhaps you'd like a review on a very small but very important piece of gear that can be used all year round.

If you're in search of the perfect radio, one that can survive a 150ft drop or a month in the freezing temps on on:

Most search and rescue teams rely on radio communications in the field, and BAMRU is no exception. For many years, we used "cheap and cheerful" Family Radio Service (FRS) radios, which are, well, very cheap, and don't require a license. But there's a lot of traffic on the FRS bands, the range is short, and they don't interoperate with the radios used by the public service agencies with which we often interact.
Puxing love on Mt. Shasta
(Photo Credit: Abi Fitzgerald)

A few years ago, we decided to switch to HAM radios for intra-team communications, and added a training requirement that every member earn a HAM license. This has worked very well for us: handheld HAM transceivers are reliable, boast reasonable power for our operations, and are built to withstand the rigors of heavy use. The VHF bands are not very busy, and we chose a set of standard frequencies for our team to use. To seed the pool of radios, we acquired some used Motorola "bricks" and associated hardware, and members started purchasing their own radios.

After a year, we had at least six different radios on the team, and came to the realization that we should standardize on a single radio that could be recommended to new members who had no radio experience. It needed to be relatively inexpensive, robust, and easy to program.

Ideally, it would also work in the public service bands (155, 166, 172 MHz). Many HAM transceivers can be modified to work in an extended frequency range, but a) this is not strictly legal, as the radios are not type accepted under part 90 rules and b) they tend to be much less efficient transmitters on those frequencies, due to design limitations. Another requirement was that the radio support the transition to narrow-channel FM mandated by the FCC for public service licenses.

With all these criteria, one radio stood out: the Puxing PX-777+. This is one of a range of Chinese-made transceivers that started appearing around 2006. Cheap and robust, built to commercial standards and widely available. Many versions do NOT meet the requirement of FCC Part 90 approval to transmit on all the frequencies we use, but the version sold by Argent Data comes with the appropriate FCC sticker.

Our experience with these radios over the past two years has been uniformly positive. There are only two problems with the radio: it doesn't have an AA battery pack, and is miserable to field program.

The radio weighs about 8 oz. This is about 1/3 less than the comparably-sized VX-150 despite having 70% more battery capacity. One of our members used his on Denali for a month when working for the NPS, preferring it to the NPS-issue Bendix/King "super brick" which weighs almost 3x as much. He charged it with a small solar panel.

Another member recently dropped her radio during an op; it came to rest on the rocky beach approximately 150 feet below. When she got there, the battery had popped off, but there was no other significant damage. After reuniting the battery with the radio, it worked great.

Below is a brief shot of the Puxing in action on a search
where we needed to coordinate helo pick up.
Contibutors: Blake Gleason, Chris Kantarjiev, Eszter Tompos
Radio details and specs:

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Challenging Search in Pacifica

Over the past few days, BAMRU has been involved in a challenging search for a missing woman in Pacifica. This was a collaborative and mutual aid based effort from multiple agencies. During the busiest period, there were more than 100 resources deployed in the field.

BAMRU turned out for the first operational period on Wednesday with a team of responders that worked through the night into Thursday that included multiple field and overhead assignments. Follow-on operational periods included mutual aid from across the Bay Area counties and as far as from Placer and Fresno.

Regrettably, the subject is still missing.

More News: Mercury News | ABC News

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected Night Out

Earlier this summer, two members of our team headed to Yosemite for a weekend trip up Mt. Conness.  Conness stands at 12,590ft. and has several routes to its picturesque summit.  The planned route for this trip was one of the more technical options.

After going slightly off route late in the afternoon and unable to climb higher, the team was forced to spend the night on a cramped ledge.  Below is the trip report as told by Chris, and a wonderful example of why it is so important to be prepared and to expect the "unexpected".   

BAMRU is a "type 1" SAR team, which means, among other things, that we may be deployed for up to 72 hours without additional support. Members don't carry a full sleep system in their search pack all the time - but we try to be prepared for an unexpected night out, just in case, because we tend to draw the search assignments that are farthest away and last to be retrieved and, well, things happen.

We carry this over into our non-SAR lives, too, of course. So when Eszter Tompos and I found ourselves behind schedule at 12,400' on the western flank of Mt Conness in Yosemite National Park, we were able to pull out headlamps, and extra layers, and eventually a foam pad and space blankets in order to insulate ourselves from the cold granite and windy conditions of our bivy spot just below the summit ridge. A few extra energy bars and some chocolate didn't hurt either. A small HAM radio put us in contact with fellow BAMRU teammates Blake Gleason and Rachel Farrand, who were back in camp, and a GPS unit let us communicate exactly where we were.

"We were prepared as a matter of habit and that showed." -- Eszter 

When first light dawned, we were able to correct our route-finding error and continue our climb to the summit, where Blake and Rachel met us with hot soup, chai, and other yummy snacks, and much-needed good cheer after a long and chilly night.

So what was in our packs that made this potentially dangerous scenario have a happy outcome? 

Even though we (mostly) believe in Yvon Chouinard's famous quote "If you bring bivy gear, you're going to bivy", we also know that things don't always go as planned. Carrying the "ten essentials" always *seems* like carrying too much. But then, we had light rain gear, an insulating layer, and warm hats for each of us. Tiny first aid kits, some extra food and adequate water (and purification tablets), duct tape and Swiss Army knife, map, compass and GPS, headlamps and whistles, radio, and space blanket/emergency bag. My pack has a piece of closed cell foam as part of the suspension (a "bivy" pad), and the pack itself provided some insulation when I stuck my feet in it.

According to the Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the ten essentials to carry in the back country are:

    Compass (optionally supplemented with a GPS receiver)
    Sunglasses and sunscreen
    Extra food
    Extra water
    Extra clothes
    Headlamp / flashlight
    First aid kit
    Fire starter (matches, chemical heat tabs, canned heat, or a magnesium stick)

It then recommends supplementing the ten essentials with:

    Portable water purification and water bottles
    Ice axe for glacier or snowfield travel (if necessary)
    Repair kit, including duct tape and basic sewing materials.
    Insect repellent (or clothing designed for this purpose)
    Signaling devices, such as a whistle, cell phone, two-way radio, satellite phone, signal mirror.
    Plastic tarp and rope for expedient field shelter.

So, without really trying, we had all that and more, plus all of our climbing gear to draw upon. Carrying all of that stuff slowed us down some, but we already knew we would be slow when we put the rope in the pack. A dedicated soloist wouldn't be caught carrying it, but someone soloing this route (the North Ridge) would probably know the way and be a lot faster than we were. And that's always the tradeoff.

Thankfully the weather, although cold and windy, was cooperative for Chris and Eszter and it didn't rain, hail, or lightening which can be common in the high Sierra during the summer months.  Some of you outdoor enthusiasts may, like myself, enjoy reading harrowing tales of epic journeys gone awry and survival stories that seem impossible to be true, however, if you would like to reduce your chances of being the author of one such tale, it's always a good idea to carry the ten essentials and possibly this even a HAM radio if you are licensed to use it.  Although not on the packing list, having two team members at base camp that have your back through thick and thin is always a plus too! 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

SAR and Cognative Disability

Over the years, BAMRU has searched for many people who have been diagnosed with conditions including autism, Alzheimer's and dementia. These types of searches can be quite challenging for searchers, search subjects and their families.

National Public Radio has done an interesting feature that highlights searches involving Cognative Disabilites in the state of Virginia. Many of the stories are similar to our own experiences - click here to listen.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Personal Rock Skills

If you are going to climb for fun it's a good idea to know how to get yourself out of a pickle.  Better yet, it's a good idea to know how to avoid them.  If you're volunteer mountain rescuer, it's imperative to know both.

The personal rock skills training that we do provides a technical foundation for climbing and self-rescue.  Skills covered include knots, anchors, belaying, rappelling, ascending fixed lines and self-rescue.  On the weekend of June 16th-17th, just under 20 BAMRU team members assembled in Tahoe to review and practice these skills before we move on to technical and advanced technical trainings in the fall.  It was a wonderful weekend that took a lot of planning.  The weather was amazing and it was great to see new BAMRU team members out there on the wall!      

If you are a recreational climber and would like to move on to sport or trad climbing, or even mountain rescue, it is important to know how to help yourself or your climbing partner(s) if things go awry. It isn't safe to rely on one other person who knows what they're doing or to assume that they won't get injured.  So before you play a risky 800 vertical foot of game of follow the leader, check out your local instructors or ask an experienced friend to show you the ropes.  Here is an option for folks in the Bay Area:    

If you do get into a pickle and need help, hopefully we'll be able to be there for you.  Climb safe everyone. 

Tying Purcell prusiks at night
Credit: Alex Grishaver

The practice wall
Credit: Emilie Cortes

Happy Climbers! Credit: Emilie Cortes

Rachel, getting out of a pickle practice.  Credit: Sarah J Roth

Jon  Credit: Emilie Cortes

Credit: Emilie Cortes

SJR takes a well deserved break   Credit: Emilie Cortes

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dana Couloir Alpine Training

Another small alpine training has come and gone successfully!  This time, a team of three set out for the summit of Mt. Dana via the Dana Couloir.  At 13,053 feet, Mt. Dana is a wonderful venue for an alpine training as it offers the perfect mix of steep snow (35-45 degrees), 3rd-4th class rock, a rappel on the descent and a taste of what it's like at altitude.  

Kito, Blake and Kyle set out on June 8th and headed over Tioga pass to camp for the night.  On Saturday morning gear was packed, and they hiked from Tioga to Dana Lake, where they set up camp and did some snow skills training.  Blake led the team as they practice snow anchor placements, self arrest, and climbing with a running belay. On Sunday they headed directly up the couloir, placing snow pickets and rock pro along the way up. 

"Despite the low snow levels this year, conditions allowed for solid crampon placements and enjoyable climbing. A few pitches of rappelling and downclimbing followed by a hasty retreat to the trailhead left us at our car just before dark."  -Kito

As some of you may know, Sierra peaks this time of year can often bring unpredictable weather, hail, thunder, lightening and wind and it can come in very fast.  Always have a Plan B and maybe C or D just in case you need to bail off a route due to weather.  As you can see from the photos, they were able to follow Plan A all the way!

Nice work guys!  Thank you Kito for the write up and Kito and Blake for the photos.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Springtime Donner Traverse

Green grass, tulips, and chocolate bunnies are some things that may come to mind when we think of spring.  For BAMRU, it's all about the corn!  Not on the cob, but backcountry spring corn.  Spring is when we get our last licks of snow in before the big melt comes, Tioga pass opens and the climbing season begins.

With the growth of our team, we have recognized the need to create several alpine trainings of smaller size so that everyone can have the opportunity for alpine travel in safe numbers.  In mid-April, a team of four journeyed out to enjoy the long awaited conditions by heading out into the Tahoe backcountry on this year's first in a series of alpine trainings.  With some late snowfall, there wasn't much corn at all.  More like fluffy, fresh powder!  So much in fact that the team had to choose an alternate route due to risky avalanche conditions.

As a reminder, always travel in the backcountry with a beacon, probe and shovel and know how to use them.

  Here are some photos of their powdery journey.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Santa Clara Mutual Aid

On April 21 BAMRU was called to take part in the 11th operational period of Santa Clara's search for Sierra LaMar, a 15 y/o female. BAMRU was given fairly long assignments, instructed to search to a high POD.  ALCO, Marin, Monterey, and Santa Cruz also participated in the search.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rigging for Rescue 4/2012

In April, John Gibbs, Blake Gleason and Chris Kantarjiev participated in the Rigging for Rescue course that was offered in Yosemite. Other participants included members of YOSAR, Monterey County SAR, and Douglas County SAR.

We are looking forward to practicing these skills as a team during our advanced technical rescue training in September. 

Here are just a handful of the many awesome shots captured over the week.  
Nice place for a cat nap!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

March tRAINings, Operations and Promotions

March finally brought us some of the rain that we had been waiting for all winter long.  With multiple operation periods for one search as well as our SAR Basic training weekend in Huddart Park, as a team we logged almost 500 hours out in the spring weather hiking through mud and rappelling over cliffs.  Working with, and being supported by such wonderful teammates is what kept everyone's spirits up even when enduring physically and emotionally challenging conditions. 

We had 18 guests join us this past weekend for SAR Basic; a 20 hour training intended to orient prospective members to the basic skills required to contribute effectively to a search and rescue operation.  For those that decide to apply and are accepted onto the team, they will be able to participate on searches right away under the guidance of more experienced team members.

Emily & Penny
On day one we covered basic knots, patient assessment, radio communications and navigation before moving on to patient packaging, litter handling and a high angle rescue demonstration.  On day two we were honored to have California Rescue Dog Association and BAMRU member Wayne Behrens and his dog, Penny (a.k.a. "no Penny no"), to review searching with dogs, followed by Ed Daley with an introduction to tracking.  
To wrap up the training, guests were divided into teams, given a briefing and sent out on a mock scenario search.  It was great to see everyone stay focused and working so well together in the rain.  Cold and wet weather makes for a challenging learning environment, so kudos to the guests and instructors for such dedication.


This month Chris Kantarjiev received his third and final endorsement; Navigation & Wilderness Search.  Endorsements indicate that the member has a depth of experience and set of skills in that discipline that allows them to confidently and safely use them in the field.  This means that soon, Chris will be joining the ranks as a Technical Member, BAMRU's highest level of membership.

Jim Lohr was sworn in as a BAMRU trainee after having completed his extensive Sheriff's Office background check.  Jim brings to the team his previous experience with SAR in Southern California and has been an excellent addition.

Abi Fitzgerald was promoted to Field Member after completing all of the required skill sets to do so.  Abi joined the team in Spring of 2010 and is grateful for the guidance and teaching moments that her teammates continue to provide through this process.