By Marit Gookin, Staff Writer
Fremont County Search and Rescue (SAR) has had a busy summer, even receiving two calls within a single day earlier this month – although far enough apart that the first had been resolved before the second came in. These calls have ranged from the truly life-threatening to a broken toe.
“We want people to call if they truly need us, but they need to know that recreating in these truly remote places is different from recreating in the front-country,” Lander Search and Rescue (SAR) co-commander Tim Hudson explained. “Help can be hours or even days away.” While anyone can encounter danger or an incident in the backcountry, Hudson emphasized that you can decrease your risk by properly preparing for where you’re headed. He also noted that calling search and rescue is the same as making any other 911 call; SAR is happy to help and would rather that people call than not when they’re unsure, but is intended to be an emergency response.
Fremont County Search and Rescue, operating under the auspices of the sheriff’s office, is an all-volunteer force consisting of three units: one in Lander, one in Riverton, and one in Dubois. “There really is no Lander Search and Rescue, it’s Fremont County Search and Rescue,” Hudson pointed out. “We all more or less take care of our corners of the county, but we all share as well.”
Due to their close proximity, the Lander and Riverton units in particular closely cooperate with each other, even holding joint trainings from time to time. While in Wyoming SAR is often primarily called on to look for lost or injured people or help recover the deceased in remote parts of the backcountry, SAR units can also be mobilized to help find people who have gone missing in town, as in a recent incident in Lander when an elderly man was reported missing.
Dedicated and skilled volunteers, who usually have full-time jobs of their own, can spend days on a search and invest significant time into attending training sessions – as well as staying on top of relevant skills in their own time. Lander SAR recently hosted a helicopter training as well as a boat training; these trainings serve the dual purposes of familiarizing volunteers with systems and procedures as well as practicing with and testing various SAR equipment. For instance, during the boat training at Fiddler’s Lake, the swiftwater rescue team tested out the motor used for some of SAR’s boats. While the team ended up rowing the boat back to shore after the motor ran out of fuel, that actually demonstrates the importance of this kind of training and testing out of equipment; it’s far better for these limits to be discovered and noted down during training than while trying to rescue someone. The team took home the valuable information on how long the motor can be run before running out of fuel, and made a decision to plan to carry spare gas as a result.
While SAR’s purpose is to search for and rescue people, the ideal scenario for SAR is one in which they aren’t needed. Hudson suggested that a key step people can take to keep themselves safe in the backcountry is to do their research in advance. “There’s standard stuff that people ought to do … They need to check in with the land management agency,” who, in addition to information about regulations that people need regardless, will likely have knowledge to offer about things like weather patterns and fire bans.
For more specific information, Hudson also suggested checking in with local outdoor retailers; in Lander, Wild Iris Mountain Sports will offer visitors information about climbing, hiking, cycling, and so on in the area, free of charge. Outfitters and guides can also be a good resource for people who are getting ready to head into an area of the backcountry for the first time. While these businesses don’t gain anything financially from this kind of exchange of information, it is to the benefit of all recreationists in a specific area to help each other stay safe, and so many are happy to share.
These agencies and businesses can also offer people information that can’t necessarily be gleaned from looking at a map. It isn’t uncommon for people to encounter situations in the backcountry that they were simply unaware of, and consulting with local experts before heading out can help mitigate this to some extent. The Silas Lake area, Hudson said, is a good example of how what looks like easy, flat terrain on the map can be deceptively hard to navigate.
“[It] looks like an easy, popular hiking, camping, fishing area … but that whole area is confusing,” he described. “It’s easy to get turned around. When they’re flat and simple like that,” as well as heavily forested, “there’s no downstream and there’s no landmarks.” The area is also full of what are sometimes called “39-foot hills.” Topographic maps often measure elevation in units of 40 feet; a 39-foot hill is a hill – or cliff – that is big enough to present a significant challenge, but is not quite big enough to show up on the map. These kinds of hazards and unexpected difficulties that don’t show up on maps are common throughout the area.
Another challenge that sometimes presents itself to those unfamiliar with mountaineering and the Wyoming backcountry is that, while people who are competent sport climbers may have transferable climbing skills, they don’t always anticipate that mountaineering routes can take longer to figure out. Additionally, in mountaineering it is common to rappel back down in a different location than where you ascend, and sometimes it can even be unsafe to descend the same way you climbed up the peak. Popular climbing destinations like Cirque of the Towers have high rates of climbing incidents in part because of this combination of people who have technical skills but may not necessarily have the backcountry mountaineering experience to know about these elements.
Hudson also emphasized that leaving a plan with someone who can contact the sheriff’s office on your behalf can help SAR find you quickly. Locator beacons such as inReaches and SPOT devices can also go a long way; Hudson noted that while these are great, it’s important to understand that activating one is the same as calling 911. SAR has to respond to even an accidentally activated locator beacon, to be sure that there isn’t actually an issue.
The most important thing, though, Hudson said, is to simply call 911 if you’re lost or injured. “We want people to understand the importance of using 911, even if they’re in the backcountry and don’t appear to have a signal,” he explained. 911 calls can go through even if there doesn’t appear to be a signal, because 911 calls can use any nearby towers regardless of carrier. Importantly for search and rescue, they also record the specific location, using latitude and longitude, that the call was made from. Knowing precisely where someone is can make a key difference in reaching them in a timely manner; in the case of a recent lost family of hikers, the family called 911 and Lander SAR was able to respond to their exact GPS coordinates.
“So our folks could come down here, plug that location into our fancy phones, and walk right to them,” Hudson commented, saying that what could have been an all-night search instead took only three hours, simply because SAR knew the precise location of the people they were looking for. He also recalled a past case of a rescue near Gannett Peak, where SAR was able to reach a woman with an injured leg within hours because they knew her exact location from a locator beacon. If they had had to search for her, Hudson said, they probably would have looked all night before finding her, “and she would not have made it through the night.” The simple act of calling 911 or carrying a locator beacon in the backcountry can make the difference between life and death in emergency situations.
As an all-volunteer team, Hudson said that the number one thing the community can do to support SAR is donating. Because it isn’t a 501c3, donations to SAR aren’t normally tax-deductible; while SAR does receive some donations from individuals regardless, Hudson suggested that folks who are interested in helping to support SAR should donate through things such as Challenge for Charities.
People who want to help SAR by volunteering are welcome to apply; while Fremont County SAR has what Hudson described as a “rigorous application process,” he also noted that “we’re always looking for talented people that can help – and fortunately, Lander’s full of them.” He did also caution, though, that “it’s not a casual endeavor … We need competent outdoorspeople who can not only take care of themselves in the backcountry but have something left over to take care of the subjects [of the rescue] and their team.”
Lander SAR and Riverton SAR can both be reached via their respective Facebook pages; as Hudson emphasized, in cases of emergency people should call 911 directly.