It can be easy to forget that you’re in the wild when the trails are groomed. And when British skier Janveer Sandhu faced frostbite, wild animals, and non-navigable conditions after skiing off-piste from a black run into dense forest and backcountry terrain in Bansko, Bulgaria, that's exactly the lesson he learned.
After crashing into a tree, he found himself face-to-face with a pack of wolves. That’s when Sandhu realized that he had to put his survival skills to The Revenant test and started to make his trek back to the resort. After 45 minutes of trudging through waist-deep snow, Sandhu reported that he ditched his boots and continued walking until dark. “After hitting the tree head-on, the first thing was to clean my bleeding nose," Sandhu says. "I knew I didn't feel okay to ski until I got out of the woods, so I followed a stream downhill."
Sandhu ate snow to keep himself hydrated and spent the night watching rescue lights search for him while he sat in the tree, too far away to shout for help and unable to use his cell phone. At sunrise, the wolves were gone and Sandhu walked down the mountain, where he was picked up on a roadside by a passing Romanian family who dropped him off at a nearby ski shop before he was taken to the hospital. Sandhu suffered severe frostbite on his legs and toes, but doctors were able to save his limbs — albeit one-and-a-half toes — from amputation, and he is currently recovering at a hospital in Essex.
And while Sandhu’s ski session did turn into an epic survival tale, it could have also ended tragically. Luke Terstriep, AGMA (American Mountain Guides Association) Certified instructor and operations manager at the Colorado Mountain School says that there is a lot to learn from incidents such as Sandhu's. “When you’re outdoors, things can go sideways fast,” says Terstriep. “If you aren’t prepared for an emergency, then you will find yourself in one.” Here are Terstriep’s tips on staying safe when you find yourself in the backcountry.
Have a plan.
“Always know where you’re going, tell people where you will be, and tell them when you plan on returning,” says Terstriep. “If something happens and no one knows where you were last, that leaves a lot bigger search zone and delays rescue efforts.”
Utilize the buddy system.
“Avoid traveling alone, and make sure that before you go out that you and your buddy have an emergency response plan ready," says Terstriep. Know where the closest emergency response is, whether it's a ski patrol or a fire department. "And know how to answer the question, ‘If this happens, then I…’ ”
Carry the right equipment for the terrain.
“Navigation and survival tools are the most important stuff to have, and can keep a situation from turning into an emergency,” says Terstriep. The important stuff? For survival needs, always carry extra food, water, and clothing layers. For navigation needs, always have a compass and map. Pack for where you are; you'll need different gear for the mountains than you would for the desert. "Know your terrain. Think about the situations you can find yourself in and carry equipment for that.”
Always have a communication device.
“No matter where you are, make sure you leave with a fully charged and operating communication device. A cell phone is the most obvious, but it can’t always be relied upon. It’s best to go out into backcountry terrain with a satellite phone or a Spot. And if you’re going into avalanche terrain, always have a beacon," says Terstriep.
Don’t rely on a guide or a trail to get you home safely. “A lack of education can get you in over your head quickly,” says Terstriep. “Know your stuff before you go out. If you are going into vertical terrain, then take a belay class. If you are going into backcountry, take an avalanche safety course." This could be the difference between a safe experience and a serious accident, so don't take your chances.