On a single day this May, five people in three separate parties near Mormon Peak joined a club no one boasts about: the lost-in-the-woods club. None of them had a map, compass or GPS. Four days later, it happened again. Another two people got lost in the backcountry.
All of the wanderers eventually emerged unharmed, thanks to cell phones, Missoula County Search and Rescue (MCSAR) volunteers, a St. Patrick Hospital Life Flight helicopter, and their own foot-power. In the aftermath, MCSAR has a motto to mention: Be prepared.
"You have to think before you leave, 'What am I going to do if I get hurt up there?'" says MCSAR Chief Chris Froins. "You gotta bring some food, bring some clothing. You gotta stay alive."
Dispatchers received the first 911 call May 16 at about 1 p.m. from two people in search of the Mormon Peak Road trailhead, says Lt. Rich Mancelli of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department. As the pair looked for the trail—obscured by heavy snow—they ran into another lost explorer, then two more.
MCSAR homed in on the group with the help of 911 operators, who can triangulate a caller's location from cell phone towers. The sheriff's department sounded sirens to help guide them out; a Life Flight helicopter hovered above them to show the way. More than six hours after the 911 call, all five people emerged unscathed.
Four days later, another two people got lost near Mormon Peak while skiing or snowboarding, says MCSAR Assistant Chief Ben Ehlers. Ehlers responded to the scene but says both people found their way out on their own.
The rescue efforts, of course, are time-consuming and costly. Life Flight search teams routinely rendezvous with rescuers on the ground to zero in on likely drainages before taking to the sky, says Larry Peterman, Life Flight's head flight nurse. Once airborne, a chopper pilot with night-vision goggles can spot a campfire or the dim light of a cell phone screen from 10 miles away.
"Saint Pat's sees it as a service to offer this," Peterman says.
Although helicopter flights become very expensive very quickly, Peterman says St. Patrick Hospital eats the cost unless the lost person becomes a patient. He estimates that 1-in-10 end up hospitalized and, consequently, get a bill.
The best way to avoid that outcome? Bring a map, a compass, a GPS, a cell phone. Be prepared for getting lost or injured, Froins emphasizes.
"Even the most unprepared person can make a trip up and back just fine," Froins says. "But people who are prepared can get hurt, too."