On Thursday, June 17, Missoula adventurer Colin Chisholm woke around 7:30 a.m. with eight messages in his cell phone's voicemail box. Most were from friends alerting him that his frequent backcountry partner, Chris Spurgeon, had been reported missing at 1 a.m. after failing to show up for work. One message came from the Missoula County Sheriff's Department asking Chisholm if he had any leads on Spurgeon's whereabouts. Chisholm had an inkling of where his friend might be, and he quickly drove his car toward Lolo Peak with plans to conduct his own search.
On his way to Mormon Peak Road, Chisholm called in friends he knew could travel fast in the backcountry to join him in his attempt to find Spurgeon. Chisholm had some idea where the missing man might be after the two had discussed only days earlier a possible Monday ski trip up Lolo Peak to a line above One Horse Lake they'd yet to descend. He had two reasons to hurry to the trailhead: the line was difficult to reach, and he wanted to beat the inevitable red tape waiting for him. Earlier that morning, the Sheriff's Department had paged out volunteers with the county's Search and Rescue (SAR) unit. Chisholm anticipated delays, and knew SAR would have doubts about his group working independently of the official mission.
"Everything came together at the trailhead," Chisholm recalls. "The search and rescue van had shown up, different sheriff vehicles. It was starting to turn into that nightmare Search and Rescue scene I was trying to avoid."
The trailhead buzzed with activity that morning as SAR volunteers scanned maps of the area and gathered snowshoes for everyone assigned to the search effort. Late season snow still covered much of the terrain higher up, and the forecast called for high winds and several inches of new snow over the course of the day. They were conditions Chisholm was accustomed to, but as he discussed the details of where Spurgeon might be with SAR and the Sheriff's Department, he began to doubt whether the unit was adequately prepared for the conditions it might face on the mountain.
"They're nice people, good people, they just weren't sure what to do," Chisholm says. "They had me show them on a map where Chris was, and they started to get it when I showed them on the map where this was and how long it was going to take to get there. I told them it was going to take a moderately fit person six to eight hours to get to where Chris and I will go in three. [I told them] 'Especially if you guys don't have skis, you're not getting there today.'"
The sheriff's chaplain tried to talk Chisholm out of conducting his own search, but eventually relented. Chisholm was given a radio and a brief tutorial on contacting the Incident Command Post. Then he headed up the trail, with seven friends from Missoula not far behind.
Chisholm didn't see another SAR volunteer again over the course of the two-day mission. Roughly 24 hours later, at 9 a.m. on June 18, he and three others from Missoula's extreme outdoors community found Spurgeon's body on a talus slope in the Lantern Lake Couloir off the northwest side of Lolo Peak. He'd died in an avalanche days earlier, according to a formal investigation conducted in late June. When the group radioed the news to Incident Command, SAR volunteers had only advanced up the trail an hour since resuming their efforts that morning.
"The reputation of Search and Rescue around here is such that most climbers and skiers around here will say, 'If I ever get hurt in the backcountry, call my friends. Don't call Search and Rescue,'" Chisholm says. "That's how I feel. I don't want Search and Rescue to be called. I want a chopper if I need a chopper...but I don't want those guys on the ground. I want my friends coming 'cause they'll get it done."
Chisholm recounts all this not long after the incident. He's quick to point out it's not a jab at the volunteers who selflessly donate their time, money and energy to helping those stranded off the beaten path in Missoula County. Many of the volunteers possess their own valuable skill sets, he says, and they mean well. But Chisholm believes the problems on Lolo Peak—the snowshoes, the late starts and a number of other minor problems with the effort to find Spurgeon—add up to something major: Missoula County SAR, for whatever reason, simply isn't suited to the situations Chisholm and his fellow hardcore recreationists seek out. That's a troubling reality, and factors into a larger issue SAR admits it is working to address.
"People are going farther back these days and getting themselves into worse situations than they used to because they can," says Missoula County Sheriff's Senior Deputy Bob Parcell, a coordinator and 27-year veteran with SAR. "They're going back, they've got good equipment and sometimes their equipment outpaces what they can actually do. They get back there and—boom—they're in trouble."
Earlier this summer, Parcell responded to an early morning page from the Missoula County Sheriff's Department's Seeley Lake office regarding an injury near Turquoise Lake, high in the Mission Mountains in the Flathead National Forest. Several men had hiked in for a bachelor party, and one had impaled his lower leg on a stave. Missoula County SAR was activated immediately, despite the early hour, to offer assistance. The wound did not sound fatal, Parcell says, but SAR volunteers had to hike several hours in the dark to reach the victim. Once there, it was apparent he needed to be evacuated via helicopter.
"[His condition was] not life threatening, but he's stuck in there and he might go into shock," Parcell says. "So our guys walked in all night, had beautiful weather, beautiful clear skies. Just as they get to him and start to work with him, the clouds came over the Missions and it just dumps on them all day long. The helicopters can't get in under the clouds, it was fogged in, you name it. They spent all night and all into the next day there. Life Flight couldn't land."
The weather finally broke for a window of about 20 minutes, just enough time for a helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base equipped with a hoist to extract the man. Had SAR been forced to carry him out on a litter—or had his wound become life-threatening—Parcell believes the situation would have grown much worse.
"That would have been a major undertaking," he says. "We're talking many, many miles back, and it's a real challenge getting them out."
Parcell uses the incident to illustrate how local units, despite increasingly extreme or remote situations, can still handle much of what comes their way. Missoula County has three separate SAR units—two based in Missoula and one based in Seeley Lake—who remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All of the volunteers answer to three sheriff's deputies, like Parcell, who serve as SAR coordinators and take charge of missions as incident commanders. Those deputies in turn answer to Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin, who by statute acts as head administrator for SAR and himself serves as incident commander at times.