Backcountry heroes always try to bring us back

By Molly Absolon

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,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes in Idaho

The Tetons in Wyoming, a great place to get lost, photo by Mike

This column was published in the following newspapers:

06/19/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
06/19/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
06/19/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
06/19/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
06/19/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
06/19/2023 Tigard Times Tigard OR
06/19/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
06/19/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
06/20/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
06/20/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
06/20/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
06/21/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
06/21/2023 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
06/21/2023 Durango Herald Durango CO
06/21/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
06/21/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
06/21/2023 East Bay Times Walnut Creek CA
06/21/2023 Mercury News San Jose CA
06/21/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
06/22/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
06/21/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
06/20/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
06/22/2023 Wyofile WY
06/22/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
06/22/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
06/22/2023 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
06/20/2023 Taos News Taos NM
06/26/2023 Idaho Capital Sun Boise ID
06/24/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
06/25/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
06/23/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
06/21/2023 Hungry Horse News Columbia Falls MT
06/23/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
06/24/2023 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
06/24/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
06/24/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
06/22/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
06/24/2023 Tucson Star Tucson AZ
06/25/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
06/25/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
06/25/2023 Helena Independent Record Helena MT
06/27/2023 Longview News Journal Longview TX
06/28/2023 Washington State Standard WA
06/29/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
06/30/2023 Missoulian Missoula Montana
07/01/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
06/22/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
06/23/2023 Livingston Enterprise Livingston MT
08/02/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
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Search and Rescue? – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
9 months ago

[…] Backcountry heroes always try to bring us back […]

Gregg Bruff
9 months ago

You may have read Dan Dustin and Leo McAvoy’s papers decades ago advocating for no rescue wilderness. See Dustin’s book “The Wilderness Within.”

9 months ago

I carry a SPoT communicator into the wilds when I go hiking. It doesn’t cause me to do things I should do because I’ll be rescued if I screw up. Compared to other hikers I am way overprepped and not inclined to push my limits. It is just a little peace of mind for my wife and I.

Today’s culture would not accept “no rescue” wilderness. Some localities might have you pay through the nose if they thought you behaved foolishly. A couple of hours of helicopter time isn’t cheap.

9 months ago
Reply to  Fred

That’s “…things I shouldn’t do…”

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8 months ago

[…] Regardless of what steps are taken at Blue Pool, people who are unprepared for an outdoors excursion — or people who just make foolish choices along the way — always will require rescuing. Here’s a recent piece by Idaho writer Molly Absolon from the website Writers on the Range abou… […]

8 months ago

An often overlooked component of Freedom of the Hills (or water, sky, underground cave, etc.) is being responsible for oneself and anyone you are leading or guiding. It’s #1 a hazard and #2 a waste of tax money to rescue folks every time a person gets scared, overwhelmed or decides to quit. If you head into little or big “w” wilderness, you need to be self-reliant, self-sufficient and capable of self-rescue. Accidents do happen and they do deserve support akin to police/fire/EMT services. The author refers to overworked SAR folks: no one is compelled/forced to to be SAR, they volunteered for that job for the excitement/experience and often a bit of pay where there is paid SAR. Voluntary SAR card is nifty but will probably lead to mandatory licensing theory and good luck with enforcing that. Diverting taxes to SAR is a flawed concept. There’s no good reason to squander more tax money on enlarging the already outrageous number of marginally useful people on the government dole simply because more people are making more stupid decisions. If a community thinks it needs more SAR help i’d recommend first using private donations (there’s usually some rich dude looking to attach his/her name to something, especially in the crowded, noisy, dirty, egotistical hive of opulence and hypocrisy that is Molly’s JH)…….or simply add to the professionally trained, staffed and led police, fire or EMT organizations already in place rather than creating a completely superfluous new branch of local government that will of course demand it’s own heirarchy, facilities, vehicles and ever expanding staff.

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