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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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."

click to enlarge Search and Rescue volunteers conduct a practice probe line along with National Ski Patrol volunteers at Snowbowl. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MISSOULA COUNTY SEARCH AND RESCUE

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."

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