By: Michael K. Smith
Free Press Correspondent

This weekend, five hikers from Vermont spent the night in the White Mountains, trapped by a whiteout. The group, some wearing summer-weight boots or sneakers, had only a tracing of a topographical map to guide them. The next day, four members were treated for frostbite.

In early October, two Canadian hikers were caught in a blinding snow storm on Mount Mansfield. They were rescued after spending 24 hours hunkered down just below the summit.

Although these hikers survived, experts warn that Vermont's higher elevations and remote corners can be deadly when combined with variable weather. The most common advice from experts is to be prepared for the unexpected, such as changing weather conditions.

Always prepare for the worst case, according to Todd Wright, director of St. Michael's College wilderness programs. "Your day hike may become an overnight. Your seven days may become 10," Wright warns.

Pack a solid plan

Experts agree it is necessary to carefully think through the activity you are planning, have a fundamental understanding of the sport or activity and contemplate the various contingencies in order to properly prepare.

"You need to fill your head before you fill your backpack," Wright says. In addition, experts advise to accurately assess your background in comparison to the level of proficiency needed to perform the planned activity.

"Learn to recognize when you may be venturing into something that may be physically or mentally beyond your capabilities," Wright says.

Overreliance on technology such as cell phones or global positioning systems can place some enthusiasts in trouble as well, according to Neil Van Dyke, chief of Stowe's Mountain Rescue Team. Advances in technology are not designed to substitute common sense.

"Technology is just another tool, it is not the answer in and of itself. Be prepared to be self-sufficient," Van Dyke cautions.

Ben Rose, executive director of The Green Mountain Club, concurs with Van Dyke. According to Rose, even if you know where you are and can reach someone on a cell phone for assistance, "do not assume that rescue is either nearby or available on a time frame that meet your needs."

Keep calm

Experts also agree hikers should never venture alone into the backcountry. It is recommended that at least three people travel together.

Don't panic if you become lost or disoriented; try to maintain a positive attitude. "The moment you realize that you are lost is when you can begin the process of reorientation," according to Wright.

Try to accurately assess your situation based upon the circumstances and your backcountry experience. Each situation is different and requires a certain skill and experience level to determine the appropriate action. If you must stay in the backcountry overnight, your preplanning should assist in your survival.

Help is on the way

In Vermont, search and rescue activities are often coordinated through the state police, although in some instances local rescue teams will take the lead. In a typical scenario, according to Captain Jim Baker, special teams commander for the Vermont State Police, an emergency call is made to the state police, who in turn immediately dispatch trained search managers to the area to assess the emergency.

The state police managers then will call upon local hazardous terrain rescue groups, such as those located in Stowe and Colchester, to help carry out the search and rescue. According to Baker, it is a highly cooperative relationship between the state police and local rescue organizations and one that has melded together into a top-notch team over the years.

It is tranquil in the backcountry of Vermont. The scenery is breathtaking. Winter sports that take advantage of the backcountry are great exercise and fun. These activities, for the most part, are very safe. What most experts will say repeatedly, however, is to use common sense and be prepared.