How to properly signal if lost or injured during mountaineering

Statistics show that almost every mountaineer who is actively involved in mountaineering at least once in his mountaineering career will find himself in a situation where he will have to ask for help on a mountain. As a rule, this does not mean that every mountaineer will be a victim of mountaineering during his life, but it means that often the need for professional help will be required due to countless other circumstances and reasons. For these reasons, every mountaineer needs to know how to properly and efficiently seek the help of rescue services.

I have pointed out on several occasions and it is never enough to repeat over and over again, that one of the first steps in rescuing on a mountain is to do the emergency call immediately after finding ourselves in a safe location. In some situations when it is impossible to find ourselves in a safe location, we still need to make that urgent call, for the simple reason that we have no other option at that time.



For the most part, an emergency call for help means

1. Calling with a mobile device to an appropriate phone number, characteristic of the region where you are located. Here I will repeat that the call should be clear and precise with information: WHICH, WHERE, HOW MUCH MUST BE DONE, WHAT TYPE OF INJURIES, HOW MANY INJURED and if necessary additional information is given. But if it is not possible to make a phone call due to lack of network, then you should use the mobile device again, this time to send an SMS.

2. Sending messages via a mobile device can be successful when you do not have any service on the phone because it uses a different technology of connection with mobile operators and sometimes it is enough for the mobile device to receive a signal for at least one second. Sometimes for some emergency numbers from the country you are in, which you contact via SMS, it may be necessary in advance, or at the time of the accident, to register your number in their emergency call system via SMS communication. When communication is established with the relevant number for emergency calls, it is necessary to write a message that will contain in detail the data with which will explain your emergency situation. It is often necessary to point out what kind of help you need, what your precise location is, and if you can explain who, how, how much and where is injured, and with what type of injury. In these cases, at the request of SMS assistance, you should always expect a return message confirming that your message has been received and forwarded. If you do not receive a return message in the next few minutes of sending the first message, then you should try again.

3. When none of the preceding methods work, the International Distress Signal procedure shall apply. This includes sending signals using a torch, whistle, signal torch, smoke, mirror, any piece of equipment that can reflect light, waving clothes or hands, shouting, and so on. In the description of personal mountaineering equipment I have mentioned that the whistle and the battery lamp should be an integral part of your equipment for the mountain and in such situations can be of great help especially in difficult weather conditions such as fog and strong wind.

Do 6 signals (whistles or flashing) pause and again 6 signals. A possible answer from someone who would notice your call would be  3 signals (whistles or flashes) pause and again 3 signals. 
Asking for help: 6 signals, pause, 6 signals
Answer to help: 3 signals, pause, 3 signals.


In addition to these classic ways of seeking help, nowadays with the help of modern technology, there are advanced systems for seeking help, and these are GPS locators built into smartphones that work with appropriate applications. They can be used to send a signal for help, as well as to pinpoint the exact location of the emergency site.

And the most advanced devices with the most advanced technology are the so-called PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) that operate independently of mobile operators and send a signal for help directly via satellites. Some of them have a permanent option for a third party to follow your movement. It should be noted that the condition of the device's battery should always be monitored on these devices.

When you have already made successful contact with the rescue services and if they decide to do air rescue - helicopter rescue, it is good to know that you are sometimes their "eyes" on the ground and your help can be very useful. It is therefore necessary to know at least the basic signs of communication with the helicopter in the air.

They are a series of body positions as shown in the figure below and the same signal has two meanings in relation to the need for assistance or safety of the landing zone. That is, once it becomes clear that we need help, we move on to giving help in choosing a landing zone, of course, if possible.


In some mountainous regions, there are regular flights of rescue services over the mountains and if you have not established any contact for assistance in any way from the previously mentioned ways then, you need to attract the attention of the helicopter in different ways (waving clothes, fire/smoke, signal rockets, light reflection, etc.) and when you are already spotted then the aid signals should be clearly demonstrated.




Written by: Petar Nolev, mountain guide and rescue service

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