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When a good day turns bad: Big Sky Search and Rescue

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SAR members participate in regular trainings, which include mock missions such as the avalanche victim recovery training pictured here.

SAR members participate in regular trainings, which include mock missions such as the avalanche victim recovery training pictured here.

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – At 9:45 p.m. on March 9, Big Sky Search and Rescue received a page. A concerned father had reported that his adult son went hiking in the Beehive Basin area around noon and had not returned. The son had spoken to his father earlier in the evening, saying he was tired, very cold, unable to start a fire and his light had stopped working.

As wet snow fell from the sky, 12 Big Sky SAR members responded to the page, meeting at the SAR building near the Big Sky Community Park. The members gathered at the building for the second time that night; an hour and a half earlier, they’d finished a monthly member meeting at the same location.

With a Gallatin County deputy sheriff serving as incident commander, SAR formed a hasty team that would immediately go to the trailhead to begin a search by ski. Additional teams were organized and placed on standby.

As the first wave of SAR personnel arrived at the trailhead, the hiker walked down the trail and into the parking lot, tired and hungry, but in good condition.

“Although this individual walked out on his own, we were prepared to go in and search for him all night if need be,” Big Sky SAR Secretary Heather Walker said. “We take each call very seriously because there are plenty of times the person does not walk out on their own. In the case of this hiker, it could have cost him his life. Being lost at night without proper gear in the winter can be deadly and we all know that.”

The 32-member, all-volunteer Big Sky SAR team is one of three regional SAR groups in Gallatin County, which includes Gallatin Valley, Big Sky and West Yellowstone. Following a record number of incidents in 2016, the Big Sky area has remained relatively slow this winter, with the March 9 incident counting as the fourth SAR call in Big Sky since November. Big Sky SAR also provided two days of medical support at the 320 Guest Ranch Skijoring competition in February.

“Although this winter has been quiet we never know when that will change,” Walker said. “In 2016, the winter was equally as quiet and became one of our busiest years.”

Big Sky volunteers responded to 23 search and rescues in 2016, an increase of nine from the previous year. Gallatin County as a whole also saw noticeable increases in the number of incidents last year, responding to 69 rescues and 63 searches, for a total of 132 incidents, largely comprised of snowmobiling, hiking, hunting and skiing activities. This compares with 103 SAR events in 2015.

According to Gallatin County Sergeant Brandon Kelly, most of the incidents in the Big Sky area are responses to area visitors.

“Usually the locals in the Big Sky area have a better understanding of the terrain they are in and are better prepared,” Kelly said. “The majority of people snowmobiling are from here, they know where they’re at …  or they have a guide.”

Visitors comprise the larger portion of rescues in West Yellowstone as well, Kelly said. SAR responded to six snowmobile rescues in a matter of seven days in West Yellowstone in February, amidst a winter-long total of 10.

“The majority of the people that are visiting our area are at the resort,” Kelly said in response to the lower number of calls in Big Sky. When something goes wrong for visitors, Big Sky Ski Patrol is usually able to handle the situation, he said.

Overall, the most important thing for any backcountry recreationist to remember is preparation.

“The challenge is that people go out there unprepared,” said Ed Hake, who founded Big Sky SAR in 1992. “You need to be able to stay put [in the event something goes wrong].” That might mean packing a fire starting kit, water and food, he said.

SAR sends out teams that sweep through an area on a grid-based ground search, and Hake said the more an individual moves, the harder it becomes to find them.

“If this becomes any kind of extended search, you go in bigger and bigger circles. If [the individual] moves into the area you’ve already searched, you’ll be moving farther away from them,” he said. “Once you’ve searched an area, it’s quite a while before you search it again.”

SAR has the capability of retrieving GPS coordinates from a cell phone that is communicating with a cell tower, however the Big Sky area terrain often causes inaccurate coordinates, Kelly said. “It just gives a vague idea of the phone location, usually about a 10-mile radius,” he said. “It confirms that they are in the area.”

Therefore, knowledge of the area and situation is critical.

“I think our expertise is the most important thing we have,” Walker said.

Every member of the Big Sky SAR team is certified as a Wilderness First Responder, and many have additional certifications, such as EMT or avalanche certificates. Members also participate in monthly trainings and meetings, which include mock missions and area familiarizations. This month, Big Sky SAR will participate in a multi-agency training on March 19 in the Lone Lake Cirque, west of the Big Sky Resort boundary.

Beyond certifications and trainings, SAR volunteers have a lifetime of experiences that are critical for their missions as well.

“We have some guys who are experts in backcountry skiing, others were born on snowmobiles,” Kelly said.

Gallatin County SAR is supported by a self-imposed tax levy, so there is no charge for a search or rescue. Big Sky SAR also receives funding from the Big Sky Resort Area District tax, which is used to pay for member trainings and equipment. For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the resort tax board appropriated Big Sky SAR $16,000.

“The community has invested in us,” Hake said, noting that some SAR teams don’t have the kind of monetary support Big Sky’s organization has experienced. “The community is taking care of SAR and we are taking care of the community,” he said.

“[Funding through the resort tax] ensure[s] we have the proper equipment to do our jobs effectively,” Walker said. “Furthermore it means a lot to the volunteers of BSSAR to know the community supports their efforts.”

With the snow melting and spring just around the corner, Big Sky SAR is preparing for a seasonal transition in equipment in order to deal with the mud and wet conditions of March, April and May, and the team encourages backcountry recreationists to go out well-prepared, tell someone before going and to never go alone.

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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