By Jane Marshall

seejanewrite.ca
@janeandthemountains

The wilderness is friendly and stunning when things go right. But when things go wrong, what was once beautiful can become dangerous or even life-threatening.

Jeremy Mackenzie is a Public Safety Specialist with Kananaskis Country Public Safety (KCPS), Alberta Parks Kananaskis Region. Better to meet Jeremy here than in the backcountry when you need a helicopter rescue! He’s going to give us important insight on the rescue response and how you can stay safe and sound during your outdoor adventures.

A rescuer zip lining across a waterfall.

Jane: Tell us about your role with Kananaskis Country Public Safety, and a bit about yourself?

Jeremy: I have been with KCPS for just over 13 years. I’m an internationally certified Mountain Guide with extensive additional training as a rescue specialist. Our primary role is for mountain rescue, providing 24 hour coverage 365 days a year. We also are responsible for producing a daily Public Avalanche Bulletin and Highways Avalanche Control Program in the winter months. In addition, we complete a large amount of training throughout the year. Our program consists of 6 Public Safety Specialists, 15 Conservation Officers, 8 Dispatchers and a Medical Director. We operate at the highest levels of mountain rescue standards and are members of the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. With visitation in the region nearing 5 million people per year, we respond to over 400 backcountry emergencies annually.

Jane: Can you paint a picture of what your typical day looks like?

Jeremy: Our day-to-day is highly varied. Often we have training to complete as we maintain a wide variety of skills (mountaineering, backcountry skiing, snow/ice/rock climbing, avalanche forecasting and rescue, swift-water rescue, jet boat operations, helicopter operations with human external cargo capabilities, dirt bike, OHV operations, etc.). In the winter we are avalanche forecasting every day which normally consists of a field trip into the backcountry to evaluate snow and weather conditions, followed by a hazard evaluation and the writing of an avalanche bulletin.

In the summer, it’s not uncommon to spend a bit of time in the office working on occurrence reports, patient care reports, and training programs and then we’re responding to emergencies through much of the rest of the day.

Rescuers loading an injured person into a helicopter.

Jane: What are the most common rescues you do in the Kananaskis?

Jeremy: The most common event is for an overdue or missing individual. These can be relatively minor (complete in less than an hour) or may be multi-day searches. In terms of injury accidents, the most common backcountry evacuations are for injured lower legs (ankles, knees, tib/fib fractures).

Jane: It seems like hiking and backcountry camping have increased in popularity since COVID began. As a rescuer, how has this increase affected your team?

Jeremy: Backcountry visitation exploded in 2020 and 2021. This led to a major spike in incidents and correspondingly a lot of work for our team. Thankfully, we have all remained relatively healthy and were able to rally as a team to manage the work load.

Jane: How is a rescue coordinated? Does 911 call you and then you launch into action?

Jeremy: Kananaskis Emergency Services (KES) is a 911 centre where our Dispatch team works. 911 calls for the region can be received by Calgary 911, AHS Dispatch or KES. Eventually KES becomes involved for all calls in our response area. KES then notifies the Conservation Officer on duty and the Public Safety Specialist on call. We work together to organize a response and call in appropriate resources from our team.

Jane: How can people ‘call for help’ when out of cell service?

Jeremy: Backcountry users should recognize that large portions of Kananaskis do not have cell coverage. Satellite messaging devices (such as SPOT, InReach, Zoleo, etc.) are very effective to ways to call for help when outside of cell service. Satellite phones and VHF radios (with appropriate frequencies) are also options, but are generally less accessible.

Jane: What are the key things every hiker should have in their pack?

A rescuer and stretcher hanging from a helicopter.

Jeremy:

  • Sturdy footwear
  • Rain/wind gear – even when it’s a sunny morning
  • Warm clothes – including toque and gloves even in summer
  • Sunscreen, sunhat
  • Food and water
  • Map, compass, GPS, route description
  • Communication device
  • First aid kit
  • Bivy tarp
  • Head lamp
  • Fire starter/matches/lighter
  • Knife
  • Activity specific gear – avalanche equipment, river equipment, climbing equipment

Jane: What advice can you give to people new to hiking and backcountry adventures?

Jeremy: Start slow and build experience, preferably with more experienced people. Wear proper footwear and be prepared for trail and weather conditions. Do your research – route plan, time expected to complete route, contingency plans, escape routes, turn around time, emergency plan, and weather forecast. Leave a detailed plan with a responsible family member or friend. Outline where you’re going, when you’re expected back, contact info, emergency plan, your “Plan B” and “Plan C”, description of clothing for the party members, and vehicle descriptions and plate numbers for all party members. Carry an emergency communication device and be sure it’s fully charged.

Here’s Jeremy’s list of common mistakes that can lead to the need for a rescue:

  • Poor footwear. Many, many broken bones and twisted knees could be avoided by this simple fix.
  • Not carrying the proper equipment. Examples of this include ice cleats, ice axes, proper PFD for the water, proper clothing, helmets, bear spray, etc.
  • Splitting the group up – often one portion of the group ends up lost or is late returning, leading to lots of confusion. Stick together!
  • Starting the trip too late. It’s better to start early in the day (leave yourself lots of extra daylight to accomplish your objective).
  • Relying on a cell phone for navigation. Many blogs and trail apps provide poor information. Do your research and use common sense. Just because someone else has uploaded a trip onto a trail app doesn’t mean it is a good/safe trip! Use your own navigation skills on the ground and don’t just blindly follow a line on a map.
  • If it gets difficult, turn around. Too many people just keep pushing into the terrain. It is almost always more difficult to descend steep terrain than it is to ascend. Look behind yourself frequently and try to memorize key terrain features.
  • Carry an emergency communication device that will work in the area that you are going (will your cell phone have coverage?).

A rescuer hanging from a helicopter over snowy mountains.

Jane: Any different considerations this year, such as slow melt/river levels?

Jeremy: The snowpack has been very slow to melt this year. We have additional advisories in place to warn about an extended avalanche season, difficult trail travel due to deep snow, difficult route-finding due to deep snow, and high volumes of water in rivers and creeks possibly making crossing unsafe. It still feels and looks like winter in the mountains!

A big thanks to Jeremy and Kananaskis Country Public Safety for sharing their knowledge and giving tips, and for helping us in backcountry emergencies.

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