A call for help 

Missoula County Search and Rescue is struggling to keep up with a growing number of backcountry adventurers, leaving both officials and hardcore recreationists frustrated.

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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.

McMeekin agrees.

"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.

click to enlarge Photos, top to bottom: Spurgeon climbing Idaho’s Borah Peak in 2007; volunteers with Missoula County Search and Rescue undergo hours of training each year, including hoist extractions, as pictured here; and Lanter Lake Couloir, the spot where Spurgeon’s body was eventually discovered.
  • Photos, top to bottom: Spurgeon climbing Idaho’s Borah Peak in 2007; volunteers with Missoula County Search and Rescue undergo hours of training each year, including hoist extractions, as pictured here; and Lanter Lake Couloir, the spot where Spurgeon’s body was eventually discovered.

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."

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