Anatomy of a Rescue

Oct 26, 2009
Outside Magazine
Anatomy of a Rescue

   Photo: Map by Chris Philpot

Every year, thousands of people get lost or injured in the backcountry. This past March, while on an afternoon snowshoe in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico, 52-year-old social worker Laura Christensen became one of them. As with most wilderness emergencies, a series of small but easily made mistakes put Christensen—a NOLS graduate and Wilderness First Responder with an associate's degree in outdoor education—in a dangerous and desperate situation.

Day 1, March 16, 2009 2:30 P.M. Christensen begins an afternoon snowshoe outing on one of her favorite trails (1). She tells a friend where she's going and is dressed for an aerobic hike and brings half a sandwich and a liter of water. Just in case, she also wisely packs an extra base layer, a balaclava, and a compass—but forgets the glasses she'd need to read it. LESSON LEARNED: If you're setting out late in the day, always bring a headlamp. Darkness can make even familiar terrain look foreign. And while Christensen smartly told someone where she was going, simply doing so isn't enough: You also need to tell them when you'll be back and that you'll contact them upon your return.

6 P.M. In search of fresh powder, Christensen decides to mix up her usual hike by going off-trail, meandering down a steep hill (2). LESSON LEARNED: Never leave familiar terrain without a map, especially near dark.

7 P.M.-dawn Christensen is distracted by the Eckhart Tolle book playing on her iPod and passes right over a second familiar trail (3). Darkness falls and she begins to panic. She tries to call 911 but can't get service. She begins shivering and leans up against a tree to stay off the snow but refuses to doze off. "I did everything in my power not to sleep," she says. LESSON LEARNED: Christensen's strategy was smart: She knew her body temperature would fall if she slept and that shivering would help keep her warm.

Day 2, March 17 5:45 A.M. At first light, she begins moving again (4). LESSON LEARNED: The old adage about staying put when lost doesn't apply if the clock is ticking on your exposure (and no one knows you're missing). But avoid off-trail shortcuts. Rescuers (generally) stay on trails and will have a hard time finding you if you're not within earshot.

12 P.M. Christensen wanders into an area where trails and old mining roads go off in every direction (5). She knows she's close to a Forest Service road but can't find it. She'll spend all day wandering around looking for it.

1 P.M. She tries to call 911 again, then tries text-messaging her friends, but has no luck (6). Finally, at 2:45 P.M, unbeknownst to her, she gets a flicker of service. One text message in her outbox goes through, and a friend calls 911. LESSON LEARNED: Texts can be transmitted when calls can't. And because Christensen's text indicated where she thought she was, rescuers knew where to start looking.

4:56 P.M. After a flurry of phone calls, state police initiate the search. The first of two helicopters is dispatched to the area.

7:16 P.M. The police notify local search-and-rescue teams, and the painfully slow process of a mostly volunteer response begins.

8 P.M. On her second night out, Christensen starts walking along the path of a power line (7), hoping it will lead her to civilization in the morning. She builds a bed of branches to rest on in the dark. LESSON LEARNED: Cold ground saps heat much faster than still air. Branches and leaves can provide critical insulation.

11 P.M. Twenty-seven volunteers assemble near the trailhead (8) where state police found Christensen's car. With only a vague idea of where she might be, ten hiking teams are sent in all directions (9). Two state-police helicopters now fly overhead, but it's dark and Christensen has no light except that of her iPod's screen. Nyberg and Schaffer's team is assigned to sweep the most likely trail and sets out, shouting her name and blowing an air horn every few minutes.

Day 3, March 18 1 A.M. About four miles in, their team spots a set of snowshoe tracks winding back and forth haphazardly on a remote path (10). The tracks lead to a nexus of trails and seem to go off in every direction. It's likely that the tracks belong to Christensen, but it's not clear which set of tracks to follow. LESSON LEARNED: If you're lost, make a mess. Break branches, string rocks into arrows, scratch HELP in the mud. Rescuers are looking for clues.

1:30 A.M. Delirious with hypothermia and exhaustion, Christensen hears shouting and an air horn but thinks it's campers scaring away a bear and is too afraid to go toward them.

4 A.M. After a night of false leads, Schaffer and two other team members start following an indistinct set of tracks, calling Christensen's name. A quarter-mile later, they hear her voice (11).

Learn how you can volunteer for search-and-rescue at

Filed To: Survival