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Search and rescue teams wrap up a quiet summer before hunting season

Current focus is on training, hunting safety and effective communication 

by Katherine Nettles

After a quiet summer for the Crested Butte Mountain Rescue Team (CBMRT) and Western Mountain Rescue Team in Gunnison (WMRT), hunting season has brought some slight upticks in searches for overdue parties. Most missions have ended up being a matter of miscommunication between hunters or hunters and their family members back home.

Randy Felix, the director of CBMRT, estimates there were just over 20 deployments in 2018 for his organization, around 100 missions for Summit County SAR, and more than 150 for Boulder County. Jennifer Swomley of the WMRT estimates the Gunnison-based organization saw about 20 deployments as well. Some deployments involved both of the local search and rescue operations.

With hunting season now in full swing, Felix noted that in the past two weeks teams have been set out for overdue hunters twice, when in fact the hunters were fine and maintaining their schedule more or less as they had intended.

The first involved searching for an archery hunter in the Lost Lake area and past Beckwith Pass on a very rainy morning, following a report from his father that he was overdue. After covering about seven miles and receiving credible reports from other hunters that the man had been seen, was fine and was hunting for a few more days, CBMRT and the Gunnison Sheriff’s Department decided to wait until the date fellow hunters had reported the archer would emerge.

“The young hunter did in fact come out of the backcountry at the time and day he said he would. As it turns out, there had been some serious miscommunication between father and son,” said Felix. The hunter had apparently planned to check in early only if he got an elk.

Another overdue hunter was reported in the Fravert Basin area by his fellow hunting partner of 20 years. CBMRT decided to have St. Mary’s CareFlight fly over the area the overdue hunter was supposed to be hunting. “Sure enough, the overdue hunter was at the camp with other members of the hunting party and had come back a couple hours after the [reporting party] had left to report his friend overdue. He was fine and had been out hunting later than expected,” said Felix.

Ultimately, said Felix, “Having a solid communication plan could have prevented both of these SARs from happening. Poor communication can cause a whole chain of events to happen that utilizes time and resources.”

Swomley said that hunting season usually does get busier for the southern end of the valley, with more people out in Taylor Park and Taylor Canyon. “We had a little bit slower of a start, but it has been picking up recently with a few different rescues,” she said. “We get busier with hunting season with people who aren’t as fit but are hiking around, who don’t take roadmaps as seriously, and who aren’t as prepared,” she said.

For the remainder of hunting, hiking, and other warmer weather outdoor recreation season, Felix recommends keeping realistic goals, knowing your limitations, and being prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions. Additionally, he said it is helpful to have a plan in place if you become lost, separated from your group, overdue from a check-in, out after dark, or injured.

“Don’t solely rely on technology to be your guide. Have a map and compass as a backup, and have an idea of how to use them. Have a means of communication with other members of your group and set radio check-in times as not to disturb the hunt,” recommends Felix.

For those hunting alone, Felix suggests leaving a basic itinerary with an emergency contact person and carrying an emergency locating device, preferably one with two-way satellite messaging capabilities. These devices can pair to a cell phone and allow two-way texting, which allows emergency services to communicate with the injured or lost party, obtain the necessary information regarding the nature of the problem, and prepare the rescue accordingly. Felix said this all facilitates a faster SAR response.

Felix said there are some misconceptions regarding how recreationalists can be covered financially (or not) in the event of an emergency, based on the purchase of a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card or hunting or fishing licenses. Colorado established a Search and Rescue (SAR) Fund in 1987 to assist any agency or political subdivision of the state of Colorado for costs incurred in SAR activities involving those holding hunting or fishing licenses, vessel, snowmobile, or off-highway vehicle registrations, or a COSAR card.

The SAR fund is provided for by a 25 cent surcharge on hunting and fishing licenses, vessel, snowmobile, and off-highway vehicle registrations, and by two-thirds of the cost of the CORSAR card. “The fund is intended to reimburse search and rescue teams for the costs incurred during missions, but the purchase of a hunting or fishing license does not offer any sort of SAR insurance coverage. Search and rescue teams throughout the state offer their services free of charge,” said Felix. In the event that a person requires further treatment or transport to a medical facility, there could be ambulance or air transport charges despite any licenses or a CORSAR card.

As far as the type of rescues happening in the area, Felix said it has been a quieter year than previous ones, but that it is common to have fewer significant rescues in this area.

“It’s a volume-proximity thing,” he said, meaning that more calls center on more heavily populated areas and those with easy access to 14ers—mountains that peak at or above 14,000 feet above sea level. These mission increases are with teams generally around the Front Range and Summit County.

“Everyone wants to climb a 14er, and we just don’t have any around here … many of our larger peaks are a bit more challenging, and most people who aren’t experienced stay pretty close to home,” he said.

Still, as the number of people visiting increases each year, there is plenty of potential for wrong turns or remote injuries that require evacuation assistance. Felix credits the use of smart phone mapping and more affordable handheld GPS technology with reducing the number of lost hikers or bikers. “We do not see too many people actually being truly lost anymore,” he said.

Meanwhile, a quiet summer rescue season allowed more time for practice missions. “Typically the shoulder seasons are slower for us. There is always work to be done … it has given us time to concentrate on training and preparing for that next mission,” said Felix.

The Crested Butte team consists of approximately 35 people, all of whom are volunteers. The WMRT group, consisting partially of student affiliates of Western State Colorado University, fluctuates in number, varying from 20 to 80 members depending on the season. Summer tends to have about 20 members, said Swomley.

Aside from the National Park rescue teams, search and rescue teams throughout the state are generally all-volunteer with no paid positions. The teams rely solely on donations and fundraising.

“We pride ourselves on being a well trained, fit, professional mountain rescue team capable of handling any emergency that may arise in the backcountry. [CBMRT] is an all-volunteer team with the majority of our funding coming from our amazing community. There is never a charge for calling search and rescue. Our services are always free to those in need in the backcountry,” said Felix.

The WMRT operates under the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Department and has remained the only certified collegiate SAR group in the U.S. since 1987.

More information and donation links for the organizations can be found at http://cbsar.org and www.western.edu/mountain-rescue.

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