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Big Sky Search and Rescue works for the greater good

Group launches backcountry awareness campaign

By Taylor Anderson

Big Sky Weekly Assistant Editor

On a Saturday in mid-November, two hikers snowshoeing to a cabin up Buck Ridge west of Highway 191 became lost.

They were still in cell range, called 911 for help and were rescued before night set in.

“Another two or three hours and they would have really been in trouble,” said Ed Hake, founder of Big Sky Search and Rescue.

The case represented a lucky incident within cell range, a rarity in the area, because most winter cases involve lost skiers and snowmobilers who need help and aren’t within cell range.

Enter Big Sky Search and Rescue.

“Looking for lost parties is a good part of what we do, and occasionally there are injuries thrown in with that as well,” says BSSR member Steve Johnson.

Johnson casually describes the nonprofit group as a trained group of athletes doing what needs to be done in distressed times.

“If [people] get into trouble, we need to make sure they have an opportunity to get taken care of, otherwise it would be a dishonest way to attract visitors to Big Sky.”

Local outfitter Ed Hake is one of few current residents who grew up in Big Sky. “There is nobody in Big Sky who’s lived here longer than I have,” he said in his snowmobile outfitter building on Highway 191, wife Kathy nodding her head yes.

Ed’s seen the area develop, grow and change since his childhood. He’s spent much of his life with friends, outside. With that came the responsibility of taking charge when trouble comes.

That’s why he and a few friends in the area, all outdoorsmen, banded together to assemble a search and rescue in Big Sky, first informally, then, in 1992, as a sanctioned group.

Now, more than 20 years later, the nonprofit SAR group consists of about 20 members, each of them possessing a set of skills qualifying them to participate in rescue work.

“It’s taken a long time, but we’re one of the finest search and rescue organizations in Montana, if not the Northwest,” Hake said.

BSSR operates as a faction of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Department, which has performed more than 800 searches and rescues since 2001.

The crew from Big Sky is one of 11 search and rescue factions within Gallatin County, essentially creating a network of trained professionals able to help.

It’s awarded a part of the county’s annual budget when needed, and received this year $35,000 for a new truck from the 2012 Gallatin County budget.

BSSR can also apply for resort tax money, and has been awarded anywhere between $6,000 and $25,000 annually since 1995, money that has helped build the current search and rescue building building. The group has received almost $270,000 in 16 years from the tax board.

“We’ve been fortunate resort tax has helped with what we’ve asked for,” Hake said, later reminiscent about starting the group out of his Canyon Rentals outfitter shop.

A mission to find a missing skier on Lone Mountain last March showed just how big the network of trained volunteers is.

The first day of the search involved ski patrollers from the two resorts in town, BSSR, two helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and dog teams. By the end of the four-month search, BSSR members had spent 300 volunteer days crossing and re-crossing the mountain looking for the body, which they found in late July. In total, the search cost an estimated $30,000, according to some estimates.

The father of the skier asked that funeral attendees make donations to BSSR in lieu of flowers, and the group collected more than $10,000.

BSSR launched a campaign this season to promote backcountry safety, known as Think Risk, Then Reward, in an attempt to reach the target demographic that tends take risks while skiing out of bounds.

“We thought, ‘yeah, we could get new sleds or new equipment,’” but why not do something that gives back to the community? Johnson asked.

Other counties don’t allot as much money for SAR. At about 3,600 square miles Madison County gives its search and rescue team just $5,000, Johnson says. The two teams work together, as lost parties near Big Sky are often over the county border.

“When it comes to emergency services, we’re about taking care of people who are hurt, and we’ll figure out the accounting later,” Johnson said.

Jurisdiction and county lines don't come into play either, when it comes to SAR missions, he said. It all goes into making up a part of the greater good.

“That’s just the nature of the game. If you’re going to do some good to dig somebody out of the ditch, you’ve got to go right now.”

Aside from working to save lives and sharpen outdoor skills, members are working towards promoting awareness when playing in something unfathomably humbling and powerful.

“Reality TV shows and videos show people doing crazy things in the backcountry and walkin’ away from it,” Hake said. “What they don’t show is they’ve got crews behind them keeping them safe.”

Hake wants his employees and BSSR volunteers to make the right decisions in the backcountry, and all his guides have taken at least Avalanche 1 safety courses.

“I don’t want to be digging any of my guys out, I want them to not be in there,” he said.