On the Trail of Trouble

Behind the scenes with western Montana’s search and rescue teams


It’s 8 p.m., pitch black and 19 degrees on Blue Mountain. The parking lot at the recreation area is a glare of ice. Walking even a few steps risks a fall and broken bones. It’s Wednesday night and most folks have to be at work by 8 a.m. tomorrow morning. So why are 20 people out hiking on the mountain?

Because they are members of Missoula County Search and Rescue, and 90 percent of their call-outs come after dark-in bad weather. This call came in half an hour earlier: Two cross-country skiers collided. Both are down, unknown injuries to the 45-year-old man and a possible broken leg to a 41-year-old woman. The victims are several hundred yards above the Blue Mountain Road in the timber, exact location unknown. Another skier who skied out and called for help reported the accident.

Within half an hour, Missoula Search and Rescue has responded to the location. A communications base is established at the recreation-area parking lot. Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Ball, who is the law enforcement coordinator for the all-volunteer unit, mans the command post with three Search and Rescue members. They are in constant radio contact with the rescue teams moving higher on the mountain. Ten S&R members and Ruby, a year-old black labrador search dog, move as quickly as they can, trying to find the victims before injuries and the cold combine to threaten their survival.

The radio crackles out a request for assistance. Ruby has keyed on an area, and light is needed. Using Global Positioning Locators to chart coordinates, the rescue team gives directions to the base camp team, who send up a flare that arcs into the black night sky. It slowly descends, bathing the search area in a brilliant glow for about a minute. Moments later the rescue team confirms visual contact with the victims, who are alive.

The base camp atmosphere immediately lightens. The search has concluded. The rescue has begun. This will not be a “recovery-only” operation.

On the mountain the medically trained members of the search team assess the injuries and send a stream of reports down to base camp. Initial reports were not completely accurate, as is often the case. Only the woman is injured; she is in shock with a possible broken leg and possible back injuries. Her companion remained with her and now will assist in getting her out of the woods.

The victim is treated for hypothermia and shock. Her injuries are stabilized as best they can be on the dark mountainside and she is eased onto a litter. Six team members kneel in the snow beside the litter, adjusting fabric harnesses across their shoulders and around their waists. Working together, as they have in countless practice drills, they clip the harness to the litter, rise together on the team commander’s count and move out. The harness spreads the weight of the litter and victim evenly among the team members, leaving them free to use their hands to steady the litter, balance themselves and hang onto trees and shrubs as they work their way down the slick hillside.

Assessment of the victim’s condition is constant and is radioed back to the base camp. A discussion results in the decision not to call in LifeFlight. The victim is being constantly reassured that all will be well.

At the road, the team eases off the bank and kneels in unison to set the litter alongside the team’s newest piece of equipment. The fiberglass Rescueboggan has been in Missoula less than a month and has already been used on three winter rescues. The sled is designed to tow behind a snowmobile or snowcat and comes with a hood to cover the victim’s upper body to protect it from the elements and a slide-on jump seat to allow an EMT or medically trained team member to ride with the victim to continue monitoring on a trip out.

One team member holds a Coleman lantern, casting a circle of light over the team members who kneel, slip out of their harnesses and move to the next transfer. Ruby and her handler/trainer Deb Tirmenstien, stand nearby. Ruby is interested in the entire proceedings. She is often called on to ride in cargo sleds and waits to see if there will be an invitation this time.

Moving gently and efficiently, the team transfers the now-silent victim from the litter to the Rescueboggan’s gurney. The litter skitters downhill over the ice as it is shoved out of the way. Once again on command, the team rises and moves the gurney into the rescue rig, locking it securely to the vehicle’s body to ensure the victim isn’t tossed around during transport.

“On the last run we had the victim inside and four team members riding on the runners to make sure it didn’t bump around,” says Missoula S&R chief Mark Brady. “With over 900 pounds on it, it pulls like a dream.”

The victim is secure, tucked inside the sled; blankets cradle her from the bitter cold. Everything is ready. There’s just one more thing to do.

“Are you going to unstrap me and let me up or are you just going to stand there?” the victim calls out to the team members above her. Hands move quickly to release the straps and blankets and out of the sled pops “victim” Lynn Dominick, a Search and Rescue member who agreed to get “lost and injured” in the cold January night so that other team members could participate in a real-as-life scenario and find her.

Behind the Emergency Scenes

Sixteen people have given up the comforts of hearth and home to inch their way up ice-clad Blue Mountain in the dark and spend four or more hours battling the weather and the dark to practice the skills they volunteer to their fellow citizens. Ball and Brady and other team leaders devised the scenario. The teams responded as if Dominick’s injuries and needs were real. Her husband, Mike Dominick, is the assistant coordinator for the sheriff’s department and participating in the training exercises “goes with the husband and the territory,” Lynn Dominick explains.

Once the victim is on her feet, the team members gather in the lantern glow and critique every phase of the operation—from Lynn secreting herself in the woods to the final transfer to the Rescueboggan. Half an hour later, all the equipment has been inspected and reloaded, and the team members are ready to slide off the mountain.


“It’s has to be a passion for the outdoors,” Brady says. “That’s where it starts. Then it mixes with a desire to do something for the good of the community.”

“You have to love it, or you don’t do it,” Ball adds. He has been a Search and Rescue member for 29 years. “In a scenario, you get to put training into a real-life perspective. It’s essential.”

Both Missoula and Ravalli counties have at least one training session each month, in addition to their regular monthly business meetings. Both units participate in between 30 and 40 search/rescue/recovery calls each year. And, as the population increases, the number of calls has also risen steadily.

“We have more people and more pressure,” Brady says. “As more people move into the area, they expect a higher level of emergency services. It gets more technical all the time.”

The two units average between 40 and 50 members each. Members provide much of their own gear and pay for a lot of their specialized training. Belonging is a major commitment that calls for time, money and dedication.

“We have people from all professions,” Brady says. “A professor at the UM, law enforcement folk, mill workers, computer techs, a dentist. We look for people with strong outdoor skills.”

Burleigh Curtis, chief of the Ravalli County S&R agrees: “We don’t actively recruit because the demands on personal time are high. People who are interested find us. If they last the first few months, they’re in to stay.”

Brady, Curtis, Tirmenstien and Chris Utzinger of Ravalli County S&R met over coffee the following day to talk about their units and make preliminary plans to host the statewide S&R Rendezvous in summer 2001. The two units work closely together, lending aid and support in difficult searches and sharing training.

Search and Rescue organizations serve under the jurisdiction of each county sheriff. It is the sheriff who calls S&R personnel out into the field. Each sheriff’s office has a deputy coordinator who works with S&R and serves as liaison between the two entities. In Missoula that’s Dave Ball. In Ravalli County it is Deputy Kevin McConnell.

“We have an excellent working relationship with Sheriff Doug Chase,” Brady says. “He basically lets the coordinator and the unit handle things in our area of expertise.”

Curtis and Utzinger had equally high praise for their relationship with Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson. “We work closely with a lot of departments and do a lot of cross-training with them,” Utzinger explains. “It stretches all our resources.”

Ravalli County S&R plans low-angle rescue training with the Victor Volunteer Fire Department on Saturday, one of the many ways the groups cooperate. Last year they did extensive training with the Corvallis Volunteer Fire Department on surface water rescues using the CVFD’s extension ladder truck. Brady invites them to attend avalanche training in the Garnet Range next month with the Missoula and Seeley Lake units.

“It’s a question of what skills can be provided in various situations,” Curtis says. “Working together we can do more. In rescue situations, the fire department serves as incident command and we send in an operations chief. We work together.”

In Ravalli County, S&R is funded by a voted .5-mill levy, by donations and through an annual raffle fundraiser at the county fair. In Missoula County, the unit is funded only by donations and grants.

“We’re strictly private—no taxpayer dollars—but the community and local businesses have been incredibly generous,” Brady says. “If we have a special need, they are there for us. We try not to put too much pressure on the community because they have been so good.”

Each year in February, the Missoula S&R sends a letter to community residents asking for support and that is their only fundraiser. Recently they have started working on grants to help maintain and upgrade equipment. They just received a $2,000 grant from Plum Creek Timber which helped pay for the unit’s main transportation, a Chevrolet Suburban loaded with rescue gear.

Missoula S&R has four snowmobiles, the Rescueboggan, the Suburban command vehicle, boats, and tons of rescue gear. Members supplement the unit with their own recreational vehicles, livestock and equipment. Brady said equipment is constantly inspected and recycled. Safety is the first consideration but equipment is never thrown out. It just ends up being used in a different way.

“We ask a lot of our people,” Brady says. “Take Deb. She has two search dogs. Fergus is certified and Ruby will be soon. She works with and trains handlers for S&Rs all over the state. She has the constant expense of caring for the dogs. It’s part of what she gives the community.”

On Trouble’s Trail

People get in trouble at all times of year in all kinds of weather. More than 90 percent of the calls to Search and Rescue come at night and the most frequent are for people who are overdue returning home.

Two weeks ago the Missoula unit responded to a call for two overdue snowmobilers on Lolo Creek. They worked with the sheriff’s office and the U.S. Forest Service.

“We had 20 machines on the mountain and search dogs waiting down at the base camp. If needed, we would have put up an aerial search,” Brady explains. “But the more people you have out there, the more care and concern there is.”

Rescuers have to follow three basic rules, Utzinger says: safety for themselves, safety for the rescue team, safety for the victim.

“If there are problems, you stop thinking about the victims and start thinking of your own people,” Brady says.

“Without training, you might as well walk out into a parking lot and ask the first person you see to help,” Curtis adds. “The constant training is what allows us to be effective in what we do.”

Each unit has members who specialize in certain areas. Divers have their own equipment and additional training and certification requirements. Rock climbers specialize in high-altitude cliff rescues. Deb and her dogs search for the lost-both living and dead.

Last year, during high water, it was Fergus who found the body of a swimmer who disappeared near Maclay Bridge. Fergus, riding in a boat, targeted a specific area and divers were able to recover the body with a minimum of time in the water.

“Fergus adds two dimensions to a recovery search,” Tirmenstien says. “The less time in the water, the safer it is for rescue personnel and the sooner the body can be recovered, [and] the better it is for the family. It gives them closure.”

Water rescues are common in the spring and summer months, and they are also among the most dangerous.

“People just don’t understand water,” Curtis says. “It is a constant pressure. It can pull you down and keep you under.”

Last spring, the Ravalli S&R was called out to a river guide and two clients whose raft was trapped against a logjam. The people were rescued by jet boat and then the team pulled the raft out as well.

“Normally our only concern is the people,” Curtis explains. “But we knew we’d be back for another rescue in a couple hours if we didn’t get the raft too because those people were determined to salvage it. But ordinarily we only go after the people involved.”

Missoula S&R did the same with a small dingy that had washed up in a bridge piling late last spring because 911 kept receiving calls about boaters in trouble. Hauling the boat out of the water alleviated the calls from concerned passers-by.

Missoula S&R also brought out the body and personal effects of a pilot who crashed into the Rattlesnake Canyon last fall. The plane remains smashed into the mountainside and must be removed. A helicopter will remove the bulk on the wreck, but complete cleanup of the site is called for. The unit plans to assist in that effort, for two reasons: The insurance company will pay for their help and the money they earn will purchase more much-needed equipment, plus the trip in and out will serve as an extreme training exercise.

“I’ve never carried an airplane on my back, but I’m willing to try,” Brady says. “We’re always looking for innovative ways to do things.”

Bringing Calm to a Crisis

Randy Schmill is one of the Missoula unit’s top innovators. Concerned about all the trees downed in a windstorm on a recent Lolo Creek search, he brought a possible solution to the Blue Mountain exercise. From a two-foot length of recycled fire hose, Schmill extracted a bucksaw blade, several nuts and bolts, a length of wire and three slotted pieces of oak. In under two minutes, he assembled a bucksaw, ready to cut timber.

“I saw a drawing of one in an outdoor magazine years ago, when I was a kid,” Schmill says. “The last search made me remember it, so I built one. It weighs about two pounds and doesn’t take up any space. It could come in handy.”

Belonging to S&R is an experience that members insist gives them far more rewards than demands. For many of them it is just one of many ways they serve their community.

Stimson Co. millwright Gerry Connell calls it a “labor of love.” The Blue Mountain training session was one of three meetings he went to that evening. He started with a board meeting for his local credit union, went on to Blue Mountain and left there to attend a church board meeting. Connell volunteers time during the school year to teach the S&R’s “Hug A Tree and Live” survival classes to elementary school students in the Missoula area. To him, it’s all about doing things he enjoys.

As more people move into western Montana and reach for more extreme recreational experiences, the S&R units are pushed to keep up. Snowmobilers go deeper and farther into the backcountry, expanding the area that must be searched when one is reported missing and increasing the possibility of avalanche victims.

As a practical matter, avalanche searches are for recovery, not for rescue. “The time frames are too critical,” Brady says. “The first half hour is crucial and S&R usually isn’t that close.”

But luck has played a part in some recent rescues. During an avalanche training session at Seeley Lake, Missoula S&R was called to a nearby recreational area where a youth had driven a snowmobile headfirst into a tree.

“When we got the call we thought someone was just changing the scenario but it was real and we were there in minutes,” Brady remembers.

In Ravalli County the local unit was doing water rescue training last spring when they received a call to a teen trapped in a log jam on the river several miles away. The jet boat and divers reached him moments later.

“We got a call during our business meeting at the S&R barn once and no one had individual packs. The equipment was at home and we had to go get them,” Utzinger recalls. “Now, we never leave home without being fully equipped. We have 36-hour personal packs and we don’t leave the building without them.”

“We learn something on every search and every training session,” Curtis adds.

The new sport of “fastpacking”—hiking on the run—increases search areas exponentially. In one case last year, an experienced hiker became disoriented and was found two days later, two ridges away from the canyon he was hiking-headed ever farther away from his vehicle.

And the dogs are now called out for urban searches for lost children and for an increasing number of calls for elderly people.

“We used to have lost people, now we have a lot of impaired people, folks with Alzheimer’s,” Tirmenstien says. “It gets more complex and harder to keep up all the time.”

“If you don’t keep up, you’re not providing the service you should provide,” Brady says. “That’s the biggest challenge we face.”

“A lot of it is education,” Utzinger says. “We work hard to make the public more aware of potential dangers and their responsibilities.”

Ravalli S&R has an avalanche training session for the general public scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 29, at the Corvallis School. The session, which is free, runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with an hour lunch break. Everyone is welcome. In addition, the group has a website safety tips, backcountry weather conditions and information and news about upcoming classes and events. Missoula S&R is developing a similar website and will have it operation soon.


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