West Valley SAR Celebrates 34 Years of Service

Come to the Wicked Cow Restaurant on September 19 to help celebrate West Valley SAR's anniversary. 20% of the proceeds go toward helping the team.


Morongo Basin SAR

October 5th, 2019 marks the 40th year of the Morongo Basin SAR Desert Run. Bring your family for a weekend of fun, and help support Morongo Basin SAR. Check out for details.

Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC)

Winter is coming! Time to sign up for BMC. Classroom sessions will be held on November 9 and
10. Hopefully the field session will be in January, weather permitting. Prerequisite for the full
course (classroom and field session) is Rope Rescue Operator (RRO) certification. However,
anyone can take just the classroom portion and obtain a certificate in Winter Alpine Awareness.
Please register with Bridget Smith at VFU.

Maximizing Search Efficiency with Gaia GPS

GPS units supplement map and compass and oftentimes serve as the primary navigation means during search operations. For this reason, it's important to be proficient with your GPS device of choice. When it comes to choosing a GPS device you have 2 options; a dedicated GPS unit or using your Smartphone. For this article, we will be discussing the benefits of using your smartphone; specifically using Gaia GPS for its rich features, ease of use and availability on both the Android and IOS platforms.

Smartphone or Dedicated GPS?

Smartphones have the advantage in that they are a user-friendly option you are likely already familiar with. The controls and data input are much more intuitive when compared to the toggle keys on a dedicated GPS unit. Smartphones also offer a larger screen with a crisp visual display and cost significantly cheaper assuming you already own one. 

The downside is they can be extremely power-hungry. To mitigate this, keep your phone in Airplane Mode and Low Power Mode (IOS) or Power Saving Mode (Android) and keep a portable power source in your 24hr pack. Check out this previous article on external battery options to keep your phone powered for an entire operational period. 

Another downside is durability; dedicated GPS units are purpose-built to be rugged and most are waterproof to IPX7 standards or better. If you’re concerned about this, there are a number of rugged cases on the market from Otterbox and LifeProof that can increase the durability of your smartphone tremendously. 

Another point to consider is that you'll have to download your maps ahead of time for offline use. However, this is easy to do and you can also customize the maps and layers to work with, which actually makes them much more beneficial than the standard maps that come preloaded on dedicated GPS units.

Gaia GPS Overview

With so many navigational options at our fingertips, let’s discuss some of the reasons why many SAR members have chosen to make Gaia GPS their GPS of choice.

You can use Gaia GPS for free, but you are limited to the default map source (Gaia Topo) and you can't download maps for offline use - making the free version not very SAR worthy. Many of the features discussed in this article require the premium membership, which is only $40 annually - a small price to pay when compared to the upfront cost of a dedicated GPS unit. The premium membership includes access to 250+ map sources across the globe that can be layered and made available for offline use. At a minimum, you need the basic membership for $20 annually, which allows you to download limited maps for offline use. A full comparison of plans and features is available here.

Customizing Gaia GPS

It’s easy to customize the visual display of the map so you can see relevant trip metrics like your current location, elevation, total time, distance, ascent and much more. You can also layer your preferred set of maps, grid overlay and choose to show or hide tracks, waypoints, labels or folders of grouped data. You can easily change your units of measure, coordinate type, datum and distance interval markers all within the settings area. 

Downloading Maps for Offline Use

As mentioned, you need to download your maps for offline use prior to heading into the field. First, you need to decide which map sources are most valuable to you. My default view is the USGS Topo base map with Esri’s World Shaded Relief layer at about 25% as pictured here. I also like to have CalTopo’s Slope-Angle Shading layer downloaded for quick cross-country route analysis during missions. 

To do this, make your preferred map sources visible on the main map, then choose the icon to download your maps and preferred layers. Save yourself time in the future by downloading the full mountain ranges you SAR frequent so you don’t have to think about it before heading out to a call. Map downloads are limited to 10,000 tiles and vary in size depending on your preferred zoom level, so you might need to download a few overlapping maps to get the full mountain range. Check these links for a full reference guide on how to download your maps on IOS or AndroidNow let’s talk about some of the practical ways we can use Gaia GPS to aid in efficient search operations.


Search Assignments

Often times we show up to a mission and are presented with an area assignment to search. 

Ideally, CP sends out the GPX files for area assignments ahead of time and you can easily import the GPX file directly to Gaia. You can do this by simply clicking on the attachment from the email and copying to Gaia. Check these links for a full reference guide on how to import GPX files to IOS or Android.

If the search areas aren't available ahead of time, you’ll likely receive a paper map with your search assignment on it. If this is the case, you can create your own area within Gaia by either creating waypoints for the boundary lines or using visual references on the map to quickly create an area by dragging the area points by freehand. 

During your search you may come across clues, areas of interest, tracks, visual disturbances etc. You can take pictures of these items in Gaia which will automatically create a waypoint with that photo. Alternatively you can create just a waypoint with details of the information to be relayed back to CP.

Mission Debriefs

When it comes to completing your mission, the most important part is relaying all pertinent details back to CP. The best way to do this is by exporting your entire GPX file (tracks, waypoints, photos, notes etc) and emailing the files to CP. The only way to export all related files is to assign everything to a singular folder and export that entire folder. If you only export a track, any waypoints or photos taken during that recording won't be included in that export. As a general rule, when showing up to a search create a folder for that days operational period first, then start recording. As you add waypoints or take photos during the recording, you can choose to save those items to the same folder. Once you save an item to a folder once - it becomes the default folder for the next item you save. This will make the export process and organization of data within the app much more streamlined. Check these links for a full reference guide on how to export your tracks on IOS or Android.

Creating a Historical Geospatial Database with Gaia

Having all related search files categorized by folders also makes future cross-referencing of your searches much more convenient and realistic. Imagine you are searching an area for a lost hiker and their PLS is in the general vicinity of a search you remember from a few years back. You can quickly access that previous search folder, see clues, tracks, lost person behavior and even chose to make the components of that folder visible on your main map and that might lead you to check an area that might have otherwise been overlooked.

 You can include all relevant notes that don't have geospatial qualities such as POD, areas of interest, or maybe other items pertaining to your own mental debrief in the folder’s notes section. This keeps everything organized for future reference and you can copy/paste CP relevant notes when exporting your track to relay certain information back to CP. Currently there’s no way to automatically include notes on a file with the export, but this would be a great improvement for Gaia and SAR applicable! If you agree you can vote for this feature request here.

Guiding to a Location

Let’s say you are in the field, and CP gives you a UTM location of a new PLS for the subject. Now you need to make your way to that location which involves a cross country route through difficult terrain. Create a waypoint for the location given, then choose “Save and Guide”. This gives you a straight line bearing from your current location to the new waypoint. You can see your bearing and distance to the new location and have a visual bearing line to reference as you begin your route.

If you have an internet connection you can create a route to a location using the snap-to-trail feature which also measures distances within the app. Check these links for a full reference guide on how to do this for IOS or Android.

Becoming Proficient Through Everyday Use

The best way to become proficient is through repeated use! If you're going into the wilderness for recreational adventures, don’t forget about Gaia! Play around with some of the features mentioned here and become proficient before you find yourself on a search. 


If you’re using Gaia for recreational hikes, it's beneficial to keep all SAR related data in a separate folder and your personal hikes categorized elsewhere. Without a good organization method, your data can quickly get overwhelming and crowd your map. I find it best to organize all my personal data into folders by geographic regions and use a specific folder just for SAR, with subfolders by mission. The benefit is that you can choose to show or hide specific folders as to not overwhelm your map with data. I generally keep all folders hidden unless I want to reference them during a search or other recording.

These are just a few of the things you can do with Gaia GPS. For additional documentation on Gaia features and how to articles check out Gaia’s help section here

We will be holding a county course for those interested on Wednesday, Sept 4th from 1800 - 2030 so bring your questions! Message Jeff Lehman for more information. 




Basic Search and Rescue Academy June 2019

Another group of new members to serve the citizens of San Bernardino County, and the State of California. A big "thank you" to the cadre of BSAR instructors, and mentoring team members. The county is in your debt.



Basic Mountaineering Course 2018-2019

It is time to sign up for the Basic Mountaineering Course. Please notify Brent Meelker at Volunteer Forces of your intent to participate. The lecture session will be held at aviation. The field session is snow dependent. Location is yet to be determined. It is possible it will be out of county.

Prerequisites for the full course require certification as a Rope Rescue Operator (RRO). Any SAR member in good standing may attend the lecture session only. This results in a certificate for “Winter Alpine Awareness.”

The dates for BMC are:
Lecture session November 10, 11

Field session January 19, 20
February 16, 17 (if January is canceled)
March 9, 10 (if February is canceled)


May 2018 IESARC Show


Cave Team and West Valley SAR Successfuly Complete Reaccreditation

Once a year the teams of the California Region of the Mountain Rescue Association meet to complete a reaccreditaion in one of three disciplines. This year was the technical rock test, and it was held in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine CA. Rain, wind, and a possibility of snow were in the forecast for the weekend, but as the date approached, the weather eased a bit. No rain or snow, but plenty of wind.

Each team must contribute a patient and two evaluators. The evaluators must have more than 5 years of experience, be a recognized leader on the team, and complete an online evaluator certification. Before the general briefing there is a team leader briefing, and a briefing for the patients. After the general briefing, each team is introduced to their evaluators and given a map to their test location.

Each team must quickly reach their subject, assess their condition, and evacuate them to definitive care. Teams are evaluated on a variety of criteria. Some examples are: timeliness, safety, technical proficiency, medical care, and leadership. 

While these evaluations can be a bit nerve wracking, I have come to enjoy them. My team grows and strengthens every time it is tested, and I get to continue relationships with fellow teams from accross the state. 

West Valley SAR and the Cave Rescue Team successfully completed their reaccreditation in technical rope rescue this year. Both of these teams are fully accredited with the MRA. Wrightwood SAR is accredited in search management, and SB Mountain SAR is progressing toward an accreditation with the MRA.



Autoblock Self-Belay

This is a discussion concerning the use of self-belay while on rappel with an autoblock.

It should be noted that all self-belays have some trade off of one sort or another. None are perfect. All must be used with caution. No belay of any sort should be used while rappelling in a significant amount of moving water. In this situation the forces on the body can be huge, resulting in a catastrophe, that is; death. An autoblock self-belay is a particular style of self-belay wherein the belay device is below the rappel device. By having it in this position, it mitigates some of the disadvantages of having the belay device above the rappel device.

The nomenclature for rope grab hitches can be confusing. The word “prusik” can be a verb as well as a noun. Similarly, the term “autoblock” has come to mean a friction hitch tied below the rappel device that can stop the descent. Often it is referred to as a “French Prusik,” which can also be used to describe an entirely different hitch. Or it may be referred to as a “third hand.” For this discussion, the generic meaning for autoblock will be used. There may be a variety of materials and hitches used to create the autoblock. This discussion covers just one of these possibilities.

Click to read more ...


Naked Hands


It is easy to become complacent when working around rope. Gloves definitely hamper tying
knots. Good quality gloves that actually fit are expensive and wear out. But they can be critical
in protecting your hands. Here is a related story that happened to me. I hope it helps drive
home the importance of wearing gloves when working around moving rope. I trust you can
learn from my experience. One picture says it all.
Once upon a time I was rock climbing with best friend Pete. We finished a class five climb and
were starting to clean up gear. We were standing about 20 feet from each other. We were
talking while looking at each other. I had disconnected from our 11 mm dynamic rope. It was
laying on the ground. I was slowly coiling it while Pete began to untie from his harness. He
suddenly fell backwards over a rock, tumbling about 6 vertical feet. He quickly picked up a fair
amount of speed. I instinctively grabbed the moving rope. OUCH!!
It took quite a long time for the wounds to heal. I still have deep scar tissue that affects the
fingers. I learned an important lesson that day!