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.
SAR volunteers undergo hours of intense training each year in emergency medical practices, high- and low-angle rope rescues and man-tracking exercises. SAR Volunteer Chief Chris Froines, a Missoula attorney by day, says the organization's total hours of training and field work can reach as much as 5,000 a year. SAR's full compliment of volunteers is currently 24.
"It's quite a task just coordinating a monthly training for everyone," Froines says. "If we have ropes classes or swiftwater training or avalanche classes, we have to coordinate all that with the people that are putting those on. Just the administrative part of it takes a lot of time. I would say we put in somewhere between five and 10 hours for every hour that we search...It's not like people come in and all they do is search, 'cause everybody wants to do that."
However, as backcountry enthusiasts use increasingly advanced equipment to push deeper and deeper into western Montana's rugged landscape, SAR has struggled to keep up. As an organization comprised predominantly of local citizen volunteers, its resources are not limitless.
Parcell estimates he works between 10 and 15 SAR missions a year with the county's Seeley Lake unit. The two units based in Missoula deal with nearly twice as many missions, he says. Most of the situations Parcell sees involve lost hunters in the Mission Mountains, but he's quick to add that concern over backcountry avalanches and the growing reliance on helicopters and high-cost equipment has forced the county to continuously upgrade its operations.
"The units train every month, so it is a process of continual improvement," McMeekin says. "We continue to work toward better integration of standard incident management principles. One of the most significant modifications in recent years has been to better prepare for responses involving extreme recreationists since those practices are on the increase."
Yet the Spurgeon mission suggests those improvements have not proved entirely successful. Chris Gibisch—one of the four skiers who found Spurgeon's body—sums up his reaction to the SAR operation as "expected disappointment," and he and Chisholm balk at the notion that snowshoes are a preferred SAR tool for winter rescue. To move fast in the backcountry, they say, skis are the most effective mode of transportation. Regular skiers and climbers know strength and speed are hard to come by without adequate experience and equipment.
"Chris Spurgeon was one of the best backcountry skiers in the state," says Jeff Shapiro, a Missoula climber, professional hang glider pilot and friend of Spurgeon's who assisted the citizen search. "I mean, the guy has won 50-mile ultrathons and taken part in adventure all over the world. There weren't that many folks stronger, so [if] he gets himself in trouble, do you think that these guys that are packing 50 pounds on their backs with three compasses just in case and a handheld flashlight and a set of snowshoes are going to do anything for him? Most of us, quite frankly, rely on ourselves or our friends simply because we don't think there's necessarily anyone else who's qualified to do so. I don't want anybody risking their own safety for me."
The grassroots search and rescue effort executed by Spurgeon's friends in June contrasts greatly with the official mission conducted by SAR. Timing alone reveals how efficiently Chisholm, Gibisch, Brian Story, and numerous others worked on Lolo Peak. While the seven skiers with Chisholm scouted the areas around One Horse and Lantern lakes that Thursday, about a dozen others were busy setting up a base camp on Carlton Ridge with enough food and supplies to last five people two days. The plan was to spend the night on the mountain and gain a significant advantage the following morning.
Comparatively, SAR called off its mission that night with plans to reconvene at the trailhead the following morning.
"We had our own strategy to deal with it, because we weren't trusting Search and Rescue," says Chisholm, who wound up returning to Missoula Thursday night but got an early start on Friday. "We essentially kept a presence on the mountain for Chris. Search and Rescue shut down their operations at 8 or 9 o'clock on Thursday. Friday morning, I was heading back up to Lolo Peak at about 4:30 a.m., trying to get a hold of Search and Rescue on their phones and radio and couldn't. Turns out their rendezvous for Friday morning was 8 o'clock. To me, if there's still someone possibly alive out there, why in the world are you starting at 8 o'clock in the morning? It just didn't make any sense to me at all."
Chisholm was among the four friends who eventually found Spurgeon in the Lantern Lake Couloir around 9 a.m. Spurgeon, they discovered, had died when a wet avalanche carried him over a talus slope at the base of the couloir. The group contacted SAR to inform Incident Command of their discovery and supplied GPS coordinates for the location so a helicopter could fly in to extract the body. By Chisholm's account, the weather was calm enough for an aerial approach from the northwest. But six hours passed before air support finally arrived. Poor weather moved in, covering the summit of Lolo Peak in clouds. Those on the ground had already assessed the avalanche danger as high, which ruled out the possibility of a helicopter landing anywhere near the scene.
McMeekin and Froines blame the lengthy delay on two factors. First, due to the dangers inherent on the mountain that day, the Sheriff's Department requested a chopper from Malmstrom fly in to extract Spurgeon's body. Second, McMeekin called in Steve Karkanen, an expert from the U.S. Forest Service's West Central Avalanche Center, to conduct an avalanche assessment from a different helicopter. The latter, to many, proved the most troubling component to the entire operation.
"I actually took a little bit of heat for making an assessment from the air, which is something you cannot do," Karkanen says. "I think [SAR] realized that, and I think what Mike [McMeekin] was looking for was a general overview of what the situation was up there. I don't think anybody had had the opportunity to fly up there yet from the organization."
The call to Karkanen inevitably stalled the recovery effort by several hours, as he had to secure a helicopter from Minuteman Aviation that fit the regulations the avalanche center requires for employee safety. Karkanen's chopper and the Malmstrom aircraft—carrying McMeekin and Missoula County Coroner Mike Dominick—didn't take off from the Incident Command Post on Tom McClay's property until shortly after 2:30 p.m. Then, Karkanen's initial assessment from the helicopter and the Sheriff's Department's opinion of the weather conditions contradicted what the skiers on the ground had been reporting all afternoon.
"You couldn't help but get the feeling that, 'Okay, they heard what we said but they don't really give a shit,'" says Gibisch, a respiratory therapist and member of Missoula-based Aerie Backcountry Medicine. "Then they'd come in, take a look for themselves and realize and we'd be like, 'Yeah, we told you this 20 minutes ago.'"
Karkanen says he was fortunate to communicate briefly with Chisholm and his friends and gather a more accurate description of the potential for an avalanche—an assessment that ruled out any hope of finding a safe landing spot near the scene. Karkanen had heard of the skiers by reputation and trusted their ability to guide that portion of the operation.
"From the air, it looked like everything that had the opportunity to slide had already slid out," Karkanen says. "Of course, those guys were on the ground right there so I had no way of knowing what the conditions of the older snowpack were. They were dealing with not only the new snow that had slid out in that chute already, but also the old snow which was pretty wet because it had a lot of rain saturation on it from the previous weather we'd been getting that week."
Spurgeon was hoisted to the Malmstrom helicopter sometime after 3 p.m., about six hours after his body was discovered. Those with SAR and the Sheriff's Department agree that without the involvement of numerous backcountry recreationists, the search alone could have dragged on for days.
"Who knows whether they could have spotted him down there?" Froines agrees. "So it's impossible to tell how long it would have taken."
In his official report to the avalanche center on June 24, Karkanen put the value of the citizen contributions more bluntly, and addressed the role Spurgeon's friends played in keeping SAR volunteers from entering a situation many agree they simply weren't prepared for.
"The victim's friends played a major role in finding him," his report states. "He would not have been found in an air search and a ground search would have been very difficult and labor intensive exposing many people to further risk."
To those who succeeded where SAR failed, Karkanen's comment only strengthens their opinion that the county is not properly equipped to make good on its promise for rescue.
"I feel like Search and Rescue misrepresents itself to this community," Gibisch says. "People need to be aware that you can't go out in the backcountry and get hurt and hope [SAR] finds you, because there's a good chance they won't."
Ravalli County Search and Rescue is very familiar with the public criticism that accompanies high-profile missions. In early December 2008, hiker Max Haldeman called Ravalli County 911 around 2 p.m. to report that he and another hiker, Lisa Jones, had fallen hundreds of feet off the northeast side of St. Mary's Peak. He told dispatchers that Jones was unconscious and that he had a broken leg. The Ravalli County Sheriff's Department paged out the valley's SAR unit immediately, and volunteers were at the trailhead only an hour later.
"At that time everybody involved was under the impression that these people were just a little ways off the trail and had gotten hurt," says Mark Butler, a 13-year volunteer with Ravalli County SAR and acting vice president of the organization's board of directors. "Both the fire department and Search and Rescue felt, because of the way it was dispatched, that these guys were just a little ways off the trail about halfway down. It wasn't until the fire department was about halfway up there...and could not find these people that people started realizing this was way more involved than just hiking up and finding them."
The search took hours. GPS coordinates obtained from the cell phone call didn't correspond with the terrain Haldeman described to dispatchers. Two helicopters circled the area trying to spot the hikers from the air, but Butler remembers the weather turning bad as the evening wore on. Snow began to fall and the sun set and still SAR was unsure where to look.
"We just bushwhacked as close to a traverse as we could into that location," Butler says, explaining that the hikers were in a secluded area nearly 1,000 feet below the summit. "There was three feet of snow on the ground, it was dark, we weren't on the trail and we didn't really know exactly where we were going...When you're hiking around in the boulders and stuff, on cliffs and ice in the dark, it takes a lot of time to move in that kind of terrain—especially if you're searching for somebody. That's why it took us six or seven hours to find them."
Life Flight personnel equipped with night vision were finally able to locate a light—the LED screen of Haldeman's cell phone—and guide rescuers to the location. Both hikers were dead when Butler got there.
"A lot of direct public reaction we got was people saying, and you'd be surprised how many people said this same thing, 'I can hike to the summit of St. Mary's in an hour and a half. Why did it take you guys seven hours to get to the bodies?'" Butler says.
Ravalli County SAR took serious heat from the public over its execution of the St. Mary's incident, so Butler says he understands the stress Missoula County must be facing over the perceived problems with the Spurgeon mission. That's why SAR usually doesn't care to know what the public—and, more specifically, the extreme recreating community—thinks of its more complex operations.
"Regardless of how a mission goes, people sitting down in the valley in the comfort of their own homes always have their own opinion of how it should have really happened," Butler says. "So I'm very familiar with being right there in the heat of things and knowing how it happened and hearing people's comments on how they feel it should of happened. Having been there, there's no way it could happen that way but you can't explain that to people."
Despite the way things played out on St. Mary's Peak, Chisholm says many local outdoors enthusiasts believe Ravalli County SAR is now a highly efficient unit. He has a friend who joined its ranks within the last few years, and knows of less-publicized missions that proved successful.
Butler says the unit likely garnered its recent reputation after an organizational change that started more than 10 years ago. Before that, Ravalli County SAR had no real standards or guidelines for skills and equipment, and opinions on how SAR should operate changed as a new board was voted in every few years. Now the unit includes between 30 and 40 members and is certified with the Mountain Rescue Association, a national group aimed at increasing the level of training for and communication between different volunteer rescue organizations across the country. Ravalli County SAR is occasionally asked to participate in missions in neighboring counties; in fact, McMeekin requested its assistance in the search for Spurgeon, though Spurgeon's body was found before their volunteers gained much ground.
Butler says Ravalli County has a leg up over many other SAR operations in the region based on the increased availability of extreme environments and the sheer number of specialized missions they conduct on a regular basis.
"We're fortunate, because of the terrain we're in, that a lot of the stuff you have to do to certify is stuff we have a fairly regular amount of exposure to during real missions," he says. "Low-angle and high-angle rescue stuff, we've done quite a few of those in this county. There's a vehicle over the edge seems like once a year off of either Skalkaho or somewhere where we have to set up low-angle or high-angle rescue. And every year, too, we have something up in one of the climbing areas. There are organizations in other counties that never really do those in their regular day-to-day operations, so it's more challenging for them to certify."
Butler also credits much of the unit's success in meeting the increased demands of recreationists to Sheriff Chris Hoffman's hands-off approach. Hoffman and his deputies page SAR when necessary, but their contributions to a mission typically end at crowd control and information gathering. That low level of interference from the department gives SAR more room to do what it is specially trained to do, Butler says.
"They're not involved in our decision-making process or the operation," Butler says. "They're kind of doing their own stuff. They're either trying to track down who knows who was missing or gathering information, dealing with crowd control...So we just keep the sheriff updated. If it's a long, drawn-out thing they'll usually swing by from time to time to check how things are going. The sheriff has told us as long as we keep doing as good as a job as we've always done, he has no reason to change that. His guys aren't trained to run technical or river or search missions."
Missoula County SAR runs on a much tighter leash. Sheriff McMeekin prefers to remain active in the organization's operations, both administratively and in the field. He has often served as incident commander on missions, and while SAR doesn't admit to having openly butted heads with the sheriff over the issue, Volunteer Chief Froines says a lighter hand would likely make operations on the ground more efficient.
For example, Froines points to another SAR call from June involving a drowned man in Rock Creek. Volunteers collaborated with the Granite County Sheriff's Department on the operation, which was left almost entirely in the volunteers' hands. Though they were dealing with a predetermined fatality, they managed to retrieve the man's body within an hour. In Froines' words, the search went "great."
"We train with our guys, we don't train with any of the sheriff's guys," Froines says. "So we know what we're doing, but the sheriff's deputies and the sheriff himself, they don't come to training typically. It would be my preference to have us be in charge of the operations. But the sheriff is in charge of operations by statute. In some places...the sheriff is either hands on or hands off. Ravalli County, their sheriff is hands off and I think they like that. Here, it varies."
For that reason, Chisholm cuts the SAR volunteers on the Spurgeon mission a lot of slack and aims much of his criticism directly at the sheriff. McMeekin's request that Karkanen conduct an avalanche assessment from the air seemed absurd, Chisholm says, and the men on the ground under the Sheriff's Department's direction appeared directionless.
"I felt sorry for the Search and Rescue foot-soldiers that were standing around up there," Chisholm says. "They looked just helpless. I felt so sorry for them. They want to help, and they know they can't because they know they don't have what it takes to get there. They probably don't have the right training. They probably are under this command structure that doesn't allow them to do what they'd like to do."
The solution to both issues—the outdoors community's lack of faith in SAR's abilities and SAR's struggle to meet that community's needs—may seem as simple as welcoming individuals like Chisholm into the unit. But the very character traits that make many backcountry enthusiasts so conditioned to the environment also make them an awkward fit for command structure.
"I feel like kind of an ass knowing I've got the capabilities to try to get in there and help [victims]," Gibisch says. "But with everything else going on in life, do I want to dedicate time to this type of thing? I think that's what's so difficult, because how do you answer this? How do you have a really solid Search and Rescue team that Missoula County can rely on? This isn't something you can train for. For everyone that showed up that I saw on [Lolo Peak], this is a way of life."
The extreme situations SAR finds itself in, while on the rise, are still fairly infrequent compared to other scenarios like lost hikers. Missoula County deals more with simple rescues in lower timbered elevations than with searches deep in the backcountry, Froines says. Those aren't the kind of missions that would really get a seasoned skier or climber interested in joining SAR.
"A lot of these individuals that are skiers and climbers and backcountry enthusiasts, they tend to be the type of people who don't like to take orders from others," Chisholm says. "They're not necessarily going to work well under a Sheriff McMeekin. So in some ways there's this inherent catch-22 about it."
So SAR is left to its own devices in the push to meet growing demand for extreme recreation. McMeekin says the greatest challenge before the organization is recruitment. Without new batches of volunteers and a continued emphasis on training, SAR will be stretched ever thinner.
"We still need to continue training, we need to continue to improve our training and enhance it," Parcell says. "A lot of these guys have been around as long as I have or longer and they're as old as I am or older. They've seen everything there is, but that doesn't mean you still can't train and use technical advances."
Contrary to the views of seasoned backcountry users like Chisholm, Froines isn't quite willing to accept that SAR is being physically or geographically outpaced. He says volunteers with the organization can go anywhere the recreating public can in the interests of offering assistance. However, Froines admits there are times when extreme recreationists get themselves into situations that are simply too dangerous for SAR to respond to. The sheriff has the ultimate say in whether SAR becomes involved in a call, but safety for volunteers is the organization's number one concern.
"We work at the pleasure of the Sheriff's Office, so we don't make those decisions," Froines says. "If the sheriff thinks they're in a place we should try and help them, then we will. But only to the limits of our capabilities."
SAR's conduct on the Spurgeon mission had a profound impact on the area's recreating community as the summer wore on. Chisholm began compiling a list of backcountry users he knew could handle themselves competently on such an operation—names, phone numbers, all the information he and others might need to activate their own search and rescue in the future. The intent of this casual move among friends is to end the reliance on the official SAR operation, for the safety of both stranded backcountry peers and county volunteers.
"There was a large contingent who felt we had the skills, we can mobilize, so why fix it if it ain't broken?" Chisholm says. "Let's just keep Search and Rescue out of it and do our own thing. Let's be grassroots about it and have a list of people to call and have some kind of plan so there's at least a chain of command so you have at least one person who's kind of leading things. We're basically coming up with our own list and our own sort of grassroots—I wouldn't even call it search and rescue—emergency list you can call so it doesn't get too bureaucratic. It doesn't get trapped within the system, it's not dependent on state funding and it's not dependent on the sheriff's blessing."
Many would argue that the list already exists in the attitudes of that community. There's always been an unspoken agreement among friends, Shapiro says, that SAR be kept out of the equation.
"I applaud the fact that these guys are willing to be involved in that sort of thing." Shapiro says of SAR. "But I absolutely question the level of skill, the level of experience involved.
"I promise you," he adds, "the last thing anybody's going to do is call Search and Rescue for me."