When I was leading groups into the Wyoming wilderness in the 1990s, once we left a trailhead, we were on our own.
If somebody got hurt, we could walk or carry the injured person out or send runners to the road to call for support. In the case of a life- or limb-threatening emergency, we could use a transponder to try to send a coded message to a passing aircraft, pleading for help.
Things have definitely changed.
“People expect to be rescued,” said Tod Schimelfenig, who has been on the search and rescue team for Fremont County, Wyoming, since the 1970s. “Maybe it’s that a whole generation has grown up with instant communication, and that drives what they do when they go into the wilderness.”
What they do, according to Schimelfenig, is go farther and attempt more difficult objectives, which means demands on search and rescue teams have increased sharply over the last decade.
The United States has a patchwork of search and rescue organizations charged with responding to backcountry emergencies. Who comes to your aid depends on where you are and what land management agency is responsible. Most have volunteer teams that report to a local law enforcement officer, although some national parks, like Yosemite or Grand Teton, have paid crews on call.
In the 1930s, The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based climbing group, came up with what they called the Ten Essentials to help prepare people for outdoor emergencies. The checklist became ubiquitous. But it’s longer now, says Maura Longden, a member of the Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue, who trains teams across the country.
In addition to practical things like water, food, a map and layers of clothing, the essentials list now includes cellphones, personal locating beacons and GPS devices. Communication is critical.
Carol Viau, who’s been with Teton County, Wyoming, Search and Rescue for 23 years, says that many people choose climbing routes, ski descents and remote peaks just by surfing the Internet.
This past winter Viau helped rescue a skier who’d been injured in a fall while deep in the Tetons — a place he’d chosen online. He used his phone to call for assistance, and Teton County’s SAR team brought him out.
Jim Webster has been involved in search and rescue since the 1970s and leads the Grand County, Utah, SAR team. He says today’s outdoor recreationalists aren’t as self-sufficient as they used to be.
This spring, Webster’s team helped rescue a canyoneer who realized — midway down a rappel into a slot canyon — that her rope failed to reach the ground. She hung suspended in the air until rescuers were able to find her and haul her back out of the canyon.
Another spring rescue involved a solo boater who decided he wanted out from descending a flood-stage river. He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — go farther. Webster said he called for help and a rescue boat went to his aid.
Both of those calls had happy endings. But Webster’s team has experienced the opposite, including recovering the body of a BASE jumper last fall.
Webster says his team of 30 to 35 people responds to around 120 calls per year, an average of two a week. But teams often get two or three calls in a single day. Most teams are made up of volunteers, though in the case of Grand County, volunteers get paid when they’re on a call. Many have to take time off from work to respond.
This past winter in Wyoming, Viau says she was called out every day for a week — usually just as she was getting off her job as a guide at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. That stretched her eight-hour days into 12-plus-hour days. She’s so busy, she says, she doesn’t think she should own a dog.
It’s undeniable that the volunteer search and rescue system is feeling the strain. Last October, Christopher Boyer, executive director of the National Search and Rescue Association, told the PBS NewsHour the current system was “broke.”
What’s the solution? In Colorado, you can buy an inexpensive SAR card that reimburses a county for the cost of your rescue. Or what about diverting some tax revenue to equip and pay teams?
For now, these unsung heroes keep bringing a victim back alive. They do it even when the desperate caller has gone somewhere they probably shouldn’t have — somewhere they couldn’t leave without help.
Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes in Idaho.