Winter First Responders

By By Liz Onufer
SAR volunteers practice patient packaging and transport using a Sked, a rescue sled designed for use in confined spaces.  Photo by Cody Downard.

Snowshoeing up Pole Canyon, snowmobiling in Horseshoe, a backcountry ski tour on Mount Oliver—all are popular day adventures around Teton Valley. Many locals know this terrain well; these wild places are as familiar as their backyards. Folks have been moving through these forests and sliding across these ridges for years; some, for generations. 

But when a skier gets hurt, a snowmachine gets stuck, or a person becomes disoriented in a canyon or creek bed, the need for help can be urgent and critical. Winter storms cause whiteout conditions, avalanche terrain intensifies risk, and cold temperatures can make spending a night out deadly. When that call is made for help in the backcountry, winter first responders use their training, gear, and resources to save lives.  

Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue (SAR) team members are the first responders for our surrounding Idaho backcountry areas. They perform missions year-round, but winter conditions create a much higher level of complexity in the search and rescue operation. The time it takes to locate and extract the victim becomes all the more urgent in cold temperatures and with the threat of avalanche.

The Team

Every SAR member is a volunteer, and the group represents a wide spectrum of our valley’s populace—from recent recruits like Brandi Becker, a nurse at Teton Valley Hospital, to long-term volunteers like Doug VanHouten, who has served on the team for a decade (and also serves on the Wyoming SAR). They are men and women, neighbors, parents, small business owners, medical professionals, newcomers, and old-timers. 

“The common thread is our interest in helping people out,” VanHouten says.

For Becker, joining the SAR team was an opportunity to combine her professional medical background with her love for the outdoors and experience in the backcountry. As an avid skier, hiker, biker, and river runner, she acknowledges, “No matter how safe you are, the activities we do here are inherently dangerous. Why not be part of the help?” 

Avard Brann, Brad Burton (standing), BJ Hansen, and Jim Jackson practice using their smart phones for navigation. Photo by Cody Downard

Jason O’Neill, the lead advisor for the team, brings a wealth of knowledge and professional backcountry experience to the volunteer position. He served as a Grand Targhee ski patroller for twelve years and teaches avalanche and canine courses for the American Avalanche Institute. He was a SAR team member from 2004 to 2012 and, after stepping away for a few years, has recently rejoined in the leadership role. 

O’Neill sees a great opportunity to strengthen the SAR team by utilizing the professional resources in Teton Valley. He is looking to recruit new volunteers from the valley’s roster of local mountain guides, patrollers, and NOLS instructors. He also wants to tap into the reservoir of local knowledge of the terrain in the Big Hole Mountains and Snake River Range. Knowing that not every community member has the time and/or desire to commit to joining SAR, he wants to create a resource list of locals, such as snowmobilers and horse packers, to call on when help is needed during a mission.

The Training

A crucial component of the SAR volunteers’ commitment is the training time required to practice skills, learn advanced techniques, and work as part of a team. This is particularly vital for the Teton County Idaho SAR because of the relatively low call volume. (They go on about eight to twelve rescues a year.) They conduct monthly training sessions, practicing technical rescue skills, teamwork, and communication. Each volunteer is required to attend a minimum of six per year. 

Skinning to the site of the accident. Photo by Cody Downard.

In the last year, SAR members have participated in several advanced training days. In March of 2017, the volunteers practiced rope techniques during a simulated extraction of an injured skier from steep terrain in Teton Canyon. And last spring included extensive training in technical rescue techniques using rigging and anchor systems, and another training in swift water rescue in the Teton River Canyon.

The Gear

Not far from the backcountry terrain surrounding Teton Valley, the Driggs Armory building houses the SAR team’s equipment, including two trucks, an enclosed trailer that turns into mobile incident command at the staging area, snowmobiles, quads, and dirt bikes. The equipment is funded partly by the Teton County budget and in part by the Teton County Idaho SAR Foundation. 

Chris Hildman (right) and Brad Burton perform a hip belay to lower the victim down a snow-covered slope. Photo by Cody Downard.

In a move modeled after Teton County Wyoming SAR, in August 2016 the group reorganized to create an operations component and a foundation. The operations component runs the missions, training, and community outreach, including event support and education, while the foundation focuses on the fundraising. The money raised by the foundation helps fund the equipment and training. “Reliable equipment is vital when putting rescuers into the backcountry,” O’Neill says.

The Technology 

The equipment used by both SAR members and backcountry enthusiasts becomes more advanced every season. The newest technologies affect both how people travel in the backcountry and how SAR responds to calls. 

In some cases, the advancements of cell phones and personal locator beacons have taken the “search” out of the search and rescue call. But they are not fail-safe tools for a successful rescue. Backcountry areas are not necessarily in cell range and, for those that are, GPS coordinates from a cell phone in wilderness areas are not always concise. Pinging a cell phone may reveal a general area, but identifying an exact location is a challenge if the person is far from a cell tower. 

Personal locator beacons, such as the SPOT tracking device, are gaining popularity among backcountry users. These beacons work off satellite technology, useful when people are out of cell range or if a cell phone battery has died. The device fits in a pocket and can send pre-programmed text messages to family or, in the case of an emergency, the latitude and longitude of a GPS location to emergency responders. 

The latest technology in snowmobiles and skis is impacting the volume and habits of backcountry users. Lighter, faster gear is enabling people to go farther than before, and allowing even novices to venture into wilderness areas. A quick look in winter at the parking area at the Wyoming state line, an easy access point to the backcountry ski terrain around Mount Oliver, reflects the growing popularity. A decade ago you would see only a few cars parked there; today, it consistently fills on the weekends.

The Mission

About half of Idaho SAR calls happen during the winter months. “Rescues range from the most experienced [people] to the most novice, from people lost to someone hitting a tree,” VanHouten says.

A winter mission for these SAR volunteers begins with the 911 call received by the Teton County Idaho Sheriff’s Department. The dispatcher relays the information from the caller to the sheriff, who makes the decision to page the SAR team. The volunteers who are available respond to the Armory within the hour. 

Those arriving first begin making a plan immediately. One challenge, VanHouten explains, is making decisions based on limited information. While the dispatcher works to get the necessary information, the calling party does not always have a strong cell signal (or a cell battery can die in the middle of a call). Crafting a plan for the mission is a matter of working with the gathered information, the available resources, the volunteers’ collective knowledge of the terrain, and the current conditions.

Brad Burton practices knee assessment and stabilization on SAR volunteer Sven Taow, while Avard Brann looks on.  Photo by Cody Downard.

For all SAR missions, rescuer safety is paramount. “It’s a fine line,” says O’Neill. “The team needs to be trained at a high enough level for the risk involved.” Winter adds to the complexity of decision making along that fine line. Evaluating avalanche conditions and weather forecasts, and inserting multiple teams in the field to search, can compound the risks involved for SAR volunteers. 

Many of the nearby search areas cross into neighboring Idaho counties or across the Wyoming state line. What begins as a mission in Teton County can easily go into Bonneville County or Fremont County. Because SAR teams operate under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department in each county, the SAR team needs permission from the sheriff of the county they are entering. Currently, the Teton County Idaho SAR team has memorandums of understanding (MOUs), a pre-determined agreement designed to save valuable time, with Bonneville and Fremont counties and is working toward creating an MOU with Teton County, Wyoming, the county where Grand Targhee Resort is located. 

Once a person is located and the rescue component of the mission begins, safe extraction requires decisions based on a number of factors: time of day, remoteness of location, severity of injuries, and weather considerations. “The goal is to move as fast as possible, while keeping the crew and victim safe to get them to a higher level of care,” Becker explains. For her, this looks very different from the medical environment of the hospital where she has been trained. The SAR team has limited medical equipment and care can be provided only at the most basic level.

Air Idaho Rescue

Getting a person to a higher level of care quickly is the role of Air Idaho Rescue. In 2015, Air Idaho, a community-based program of the larger private company Air Methods, opened a base at Driggs–Reed Memorial Airport, moving the air ambulance helicopter from Idaho Falls to Teton Valley. For backcountry users, this can mean a much shorter response time in the mountains surrounding Teton Valley. “We can get to people that Search and Rescue may not be able to get to,” says Air Idaho lead pilot Matt Palazzolo. “Or, what may take eight hours for them to ski or sled into, we can be there in ten minutes.

“Our specialty is medical care,” Palazzolo adds. The team on the helicopter consists of the pilot and two medical personnel—a certified critical care flight nurse and a paramedic. “Close to anything I can do in the ICU, I can do in the back of the helicopter,” says flight nurse Marcus Ogden. 

While Air Idaho is not part of the county operations—and is an air ambulance, not a search and rescue helicopter—they can assist the SAR team during a mission. The pilots can help search from the air for a lost or hurt person if an exact location is not known. From the helicopter, the team can help provide coordinates to the SAR volunteers on the ground. This includes night flights when the crew uses night vision goggles, allowing them to see as clearly as if it were daytime. The helicopter can also transport SAR members to the scene, especially when a victim requires a difficult extraction or more people are needed to transport the person to the landing zone. Sometimes, just getting the patient to the landing zone can mean a tough posthole through waist-deep snow. 

Brad Burton straps on his radio harness outside the incident command truck. Photo by Cody Downard.

In winter operations, the Air Idaho crew carries survival packs and is prepared to spend a night out at the scene if necessary. The helicopter  is equipped with snow pads on the skids, allowing it to land on snow and preventing the tail rudder from sinking. Either SAR or the sheriff can call in Air Idaho for advanced medical care in the backcountry. It could take the SAR team hours to carry a victim out, whereas Air Idaho can extract the patient in a matter of minutes. “We can be in any of the mountains surrounding Teton Valley in ten minutes,” Palazzolo  says.

When the Call Comes

On most days, the snowmobiles are loaded on the trailer and tucked into the warm, dry bay at the Armory. Even though hundreds of people may be recreating in the snowy mountains surrounding the valley, on the large majority of days the sleds stay dry and unused. Along with the trucks, trailers, quads, and motorbikes, the large bay is orderly and the floor well swept. The gear and maps remain neatly tucked into their spots, and the garage doors keep the winter weather outside. 

But for the days when they and the gear are needed, Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue volunteers stand ready to save a life.  

When should you contact Search & Rescue?

The decision to call SAR may not always be the most obvious one. But delaying that call because people think they can extract themselves, or because the situation doesn’t seem that bad, can make the SAR mission more difficult and dangerous. The services of Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue are free of charge. “From our standpoint, call,” Jason O’Neill says. “If nothing else, it’s training. We understand that as part of our commitment.” 

Doug VanHouten, SAR member of both the Teton County Idaho and Wyoming teams, provides an overview of when the call should be made. 

ABC issue—Airway, Breathing, Circulation (uncontrolled bleeding), all of which can be life-threatening.

Immobile—You are not able to transport yourself out of the backcountry, or you’re moving slowly and may not be able to make it out in a timely manner. In the winter, a night out can have severe consequences. 

Lost—You don’t know where you are. 

Before you go into the backcountry: 

Let a friend or family member know the following: 

Where you are going;

When will you be back;

Who are you going with and the number in your party; and

What is your activity.

This way, a friend or family member can notify SAR if you are unable to do so, after a pre-determined time of day. 

If you “Don’t Know, Don’t Go.”

How to contact Search & Rescue:

Search & Rescue may be contacted by calling 911. The crew can be much more effective if contacted earlier when the need for assistance arises. Searching is less efficient in the dark, obviously, and nighttime rescues typically take longer. If conditions are unfavorable, SAR may even be unable to respond until daylight arrives or the weather improves. This might well be their motto: “Rescuer safety is our number-one priority.”

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