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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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.

click to enlarge Missoula County Search and Rescue Volunteer Chief Chris Froines says that, while volunteers regularly practice the skills needed to aid injured recreationists, few of the unit’s missions actually put that training to use. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MISSOULA COUNTY SEARCH AND RESCUE
  • Photo courtesy of Missoula County Search and Rescue
  • Missoula County Search and Rescue Volunteer Chief Chris Froines says that, while volunteers regularly practice the skills needed to aid injured recreationists, few of the unit’s missions actually put that training to use.

"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."

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