Mountain Accidents: 7 Critical Steps for Emergency Response

Slipping on an icy trail. Falling into a bubbling creek. Twisting your ankle on a scramble. There are a thousand different ways to get into trouble in the mountains. Between the harsh weather and steep, rocky terrain, there’s a number of serious hazards, each threatening in its own unique way. Often, one small emergency quickly leads to additional mistakes and problems in the rush to respond, spiraling the situation out of control. It’s important to know what to do during mountain accidents so you can stop this chain of escalation, get the situation under control, and begin your response in an efficient way. Here are 7 critical steps for emergency response during mountain accidents.

Before You Go: Plan Ahead Properly!

Remember, a good response requires the right gear, information, and skill to be effective. If you don’t take time to plan ahead before you go, your chances of being able to take care of yourself if something goes wrong falls precipitously. Be sure you read through your route, bring the ten essentials, and leave your itinerary with someone dependable back home. If you follow these guidelines, these 7 steps will be far easier to handle.

1) Take Charge of the Situation

The overall group leader should take charge in the response (this is why you should always designate a leader – even on hikes with friends or family). They need to ensure the rest of the group stays safe, and keep a big picture view of the situation. The leader shouldn’t get too involved with any one aspect of the response, instead of watching over the individual parts to ensure nothing is missed and threats are recognized. If the leader is incapacitated, another experienced group member should take their place.

2) Approach the Patient Safely

With the team’s safety ensured, the group must safely make their way to the patient. This can involve treacherous travel over a long distance for significant falls. It is important to avoid rushing too quickly over dangerous terrain, which may lead to additional accidents and victims. Take time to scout out your options and pick the safest route. If you cannot safely reach the patient (they are in a crevasse or cliffed out), call search and rescue and do what you can from a distance.

3) Perform Emergency Rescue and Urgent First Aid

When you reach the patient, provide life-saving circulatory, airway, breathing, and bleeding (CAB-B) treatment, and other crucial first aid. Don’t move them unless there is a major risk due to the slope, rockfall, weather, or avalanches. Wait to deal with non-life-threatening injuries or illness until later. If you must move the patient, only go as far as is necessary to get them out of immediate danger.

4) Protect the Patient

Communicate to the victim throughout the process, trying to be as kind and calm as possible. Do your best to protect them from hazards like rain and snow, extreme heat or cold, wind, and other environmental factors. A bivy or sleeping bag can be helpful in this stage of the response – a good reason to carry one for mountain accidents. Watch for, and if necessary, treat the patient for shock and/or hypothermia. These are common secondary conditions in mountain accidents.

5) Check for Other Injuries

With the initial emergency needs taken care of, begin a secondary assessment of the victim’s injuries and symptoms. If any new serious conditions are discovered, treat them immediately, or if necessary, expedite your evacuation. This is also a good time to check on the team to ensure others are doing well, physically and emotionally. 

6) Make a Plan

The group leader should consider all the patient’s injuries, the terrain, and risks, and other group members input to create a plan. The acronym WE RAPPED is helpful for considering all key factors:

  • Weather: Consider the temp, precipitation, wind, and other environmental factors.
  • Evacuation: How far is the trailhead? Can the patient walk? Is a helicopter needed?
  • Rope: Is rope and climbing expertise necessary to get the patient evacuated?
  • Assistance: Is assistance required? Are other parties near that can help?
  • Patient: How injured is the patient? Are they stable, improving, or declining?
  • Party: Can the party help? Are any members injured or traumatized? Can they stay on-site?
  • Equipment: What gear is needed to evacuate? What was lost in the accident?
  • Daylight: How much time is left? How will nighttime affect the rescue?

Considering all these factors, the leader should put together a plan to evacuate the patient as quickly and safely as possible. If assistance may be necessary, it is better to call for help and end up needing it, than to not call at all. If emergency treatment is needed or you think you will need help evacuating, call for help as soon as possible.

7) Carry Out the Plan

Implement the plan as soon as ready, assigning roles to individual team members, like calling for help, going ahead to meet rescuers, and assisting or carrying the victim. Continue to take a big picture approach, using feedback from group members to adjust the plan to respond to new information or problems. The plan should remain flexible rather than rigid.

When & How to Call for Help

During many mountain accidents, it becomes necessary to call for additional assistance. It’s important to make this call as soon as possible once you know you may need them to give rescue crews time to respond. Here are some tips for calling for help during mountain accidents.

  • Most rescue requests come in through 9-11 calls or SOS beacon systems. 
  • Your call may get dropped – be extremely efficient in sharing key information.
  • Before calling, write down the ‘Who, What, Where, When, & How’ of the accident to share.
  • Once you have made contact with SAR and given them your location, stay put.

Mountain Accidents: Remember the 7 Response Steps

Mountain accidents can happen to anyone at any time. That’s why it’s so important to be ready to respond when a crisis hits your team. Keep in mind these 7 steps for responding to mountain accidents whenever you are hiking or climbing in the backcountry.

  1. Take charge of the situation.
  2. Approach the patient safely.
  3. Perform emergency rescue and urgent first aid.
  4. Protect the patient.
  5. Check for other injuries.
  6. Make a plan.
  7. Carry out the plan.

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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