You see it every winter: skiers going off trails and the search and rescue efforts that follow. Over a 34-year career in Vermont Search and Rescue, Neil Van Dyke has pretty much seen it all, what works and what doesn't.
"Some people just don't give up very easily," Van Dyke said. "Lack of knowledge of the area is probably the single biggest factor."
Van Dyke is the state's new search and rescue coordinator, a job created by lawmakers last year.
"I think we're seeing a more rapid response to people that are lost," Van Dyke said.
His job is largely the result of the tragic death of Levi Duclos in January 2011. The 19-year-old died of hypothermia after becoming inured hiking on a trail in Ripton. Though state police responded to a call from his family that night, it wasn't until the next morning that a search began and by then it was too late.
Carrying the right emergency equipment is certainly key to survival, but Van Dyke also has other tips for the hapless hiker or skier. Number 1-- what may seem obvious-- try to retrace your tracks in the snow.
"We had a multiday search in Jay Peak a number of years ago that went on for several days in subzero temperatures and people said when it was all over that they had considered doing that, but they felt it was going to take them as long as three hours to hike back up to Jay Peak. Well, it took us three days to find them," Van Dyke said.
While many people have cellphones, Van Dyke says by the end of a long day they're often running out of juice.
"So, great idea to bring a phone, but keep it off until you need it and then hope you have coverage," Van Dyke said. "Keep it warm, right. Keep it in your coat, under your insulating layers definitely makes sense."
If you can't follow your tracks, he says it's probably best to stay put.
"If you really have no clue where you are and it's getting late in the day, it would be a perfectly good strategy-- and probably a recommended one-- to stay where you are," Van Dyke advised.
Building a fire is a bonus, not only for the warmth but as a psychological boost. If not, physical activity will have to do, like in the case of some lost cross-country skiers.
"They were doing jumping jacks every half-hour just to keep their circulation going and keeping their body heat going," Van Dyke said.
Van Dyke says building some kind of insulated shelter for the night out of branches or snow can make all the difference. Authorities say it was smart thinking last month that helped save a family of six in Nevada after their car crashed and they were stranded for two days in the wilderness. Although similar situations are rare in the East, Van Dyke says some basics apply.
"The rule of thumb is to stay with your vehicle," he said. "It's a source of shelter. You can run the heater for a while and turn it off to save gas. Make sure that the tailpipe is clear so you're not building up carbon monoxide."
If injured on the trail, Van Dyke says you either need to suck it up and keep going or find shelter.
"Even if you have to crawl to it," he said. "But again, staying as close to the trail if you can and if you leave the trail, leaving something at the trail, where you leave it, that can be identified. So leaving a hiking pole or something that would indicate if a searcher were to walk by."
In all scenarios, keeping a cool, positive attitude can often be the difference between life and death.
"What often happens is there becomes this rising sense of panic which leads to often irrational behavior," Van Dyke explained. "If people can combat that natural tendency and really think the situation through... "
Survival concepts to keep in mind in this frigid winter weather.
Last year was a record for out-of-bounds ski rescues. But with so little snow this winter, authorities say that is likely keeping a lot of skiers out of the backcountry.
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