Bernhard Reitmann. Tyler Strandberg. Catherine Nix.
These three names are on the list of backcountry fatalities near Jackson this year.
What if the list was shorter? What if it didn’t exist at all?
Backcountry Zero is a new initiative in Teton County meant to reduce the number of fatalities in the mountains. “Backcountry zero is a vision; it’s not a goal,” said Stephanie Thomas, executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation and also a volunteer rescuer.
The community kick-off for the initiative started last week in Jackson. Partners including the Jenny Lake Rangers, the Forest Service and the Wyoming Department of Transportation came together to present the vision, and also to start a community conversation.
“It’s about looking as a community about what we can do to bring more attention to these deaths — and have fewer deaths,” Thomas said.
The full-day event started with the first Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop where speakers discussed risk and focused on snow safety and rescues. The evening presentation included a screening of Meru, a film about three climbers attempting to summit one of the most challenging peaks in the Himalayas. Other presentations on the initiative were also included in the workshop.
Thomas started mulling over the idea more than a year ago after seeing a presentation on Sweden’s Vision Zero, an effort to decrease driving fatalities. Sweden came together as a country to devise ways to lower the high fatality rate, Thomas said. Through education and road construction initiatives, Sweden is now one of the safest driving countries in the world.
Thomas wondered if the model could be used to reduce other types of deaths — including backcountry recreation fatalities. It wasn’t a single event, but a culmination of the deaths through the years, that inspired her to take action.
“It’s hard to see so much death in our small community,” she said.
Backcountry deaths are also tough on volunteer rescuers who often put themselves in danger trying to save people who are trouble. Each year, the 40 volunteers respond to about 80 calls, and that doesn’t include rescue calls in Grand Teton National Park where the Jenny Lake Rangers conduct search and rescue. Rescues include everything from people who suffer heart attacks on the river to those who fall while climbing. Victims range from experts attempting the biggest lines to novices unfamiliar with the terrain.
“Some of the people on our team have been doing this for 23 years,” Thomas said. “So I look around all the time and say they are still here putting their lives on the line, still rescuing. What else can we do to cut back on that?”
Recently Teton County Search and Rescue started giving backcountry users safety logs people can leave on their car dashboards. The logs include information on where they are headed and when they expect to come back.
Teton County Search and Rescue already offers preventative training. Each winter, it offers a “What’s in your pack?” class where instructors go over what everyone should carry with them when they go into the backcountry. Backcountry Zero builds on that.
While the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education launched Project Zero with a similar vision for avalanche fatalities, Backcountry Zero is the first cross-sport, community-based program of its kind, Thomas said.
“It’s ground breaking for us to look at something that spans such a huge user group, from the very novice to the very expert, from skiers to climbers,” Thomas said.
Thomas is looking to the entire community for ways to reduce fatalities. She recently spoke to the Snake River Fund, and the group suggested more automated external defibrillators stashed along the river at boat ramps for people who might have heart attacks.
Backcountry Zero will act as a clearinghouse to create a common language among user groups. Whether planning a rafting trip or a climbing trip, people should be thinking about their equipment, education and the consequences of their actions.
“Then it’s up to a community to take care of each other,” Thomas said. “We want people, if they see someone get out of their car and start up Glory [a popular mountain to backcountry ski on Teton Pass] with no pack to say ‘We don’t do that here,’” Thomas said.
Thomas hopes just talking about risk will get people thinking more about how they can get home safely, and when they do they will think, “I am the zero today.”