The way Missoula County Search and Rescue (MCSAR) Chief Chris Froines tells it, the scene near the Mormon Peak trailhead May 16 was like a backcountry comedy of errors: Two hikers who had lost the trail ran into a third lost hiker, and later another pair of wayward individuals. Several had cell phones. None had a map or compass.
The five befuddled recreationists emerged from the woods unscathed five hours after the first calls to 911, guided by the sounds of Missoula County Sheriff's Office sirens and the St. Patrick Hospital Life Flight helicopter. But Mormon Peak—located off U.S. Highway 12, west of Lolo—wasn't done warning outdoor enthusiasts to come prepared. MCSAR responded to another call from a lost hiker last Thursday, again recovering the individual uninjured.
"Without some directional devices—GPS, compass—they're just wandering blind," Froines says.
While MCSAR can't control hiker carelessness, the back-to-back incidents have highlighted a positive development for the office in recent years. Increased cell coverage in the backcountry has cut response time considerably, and participation from local emergency flight services has helped narrow search parameters before situations get dangerous.
"It lessens our time in the woods if the helicopter can spot them," says MCSAR Assistant Chief Ben Ehlers. "It rules out all areas of probability. It's more of a rescue than a search."
Froines says local search and rescue typically gets two to three calls a month from the backcountry, though that number dropped significantly over the past winter. Life Flight paramedic Joel McLennan adds that the St. Pat's helicopter responds to roughly 10 calls from MCSAR a year.
Ehlers was on scene for roughly three hours Thursday trying to find the Mormon Peak trail's latest victim. The man, who Ehlers says was skiing or snowboarding with a friend, eventually found his own way out of the woods. Again, the hiker had no GPS or compass, which Ehlers points to as an unexpected downside to the helping hand of increased cell coverage.
"It's a double-edged sword," Ehlers says. "Because then people don't rely on map and compass and skills like that."