Summit County Search and Rescue well-equipped for busy, challenging season
There have been 19 calls for service so far this year compared to 65 calls in all of 2022
From snowshoes and skis to snowcats and snowmobiles, Summit County Search and Rescue volunteers are well-equipped to answer the call.
It’s been a busy season for the team given the historic snowfall and the amount of backcountry use, Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Siddoway, the Search and Rescue liaison, said, but it’s gone well overall despite the challenges.
Search and Rescue has received 19 calls for service so far this year; more than a quarter of what volunteers responded to in all of 2022.
Many reports this winter have been about people who became stranded after traveling on off-piste terrain, often because of deep snow or equipment failures. Search and Rescue earlier this month assisted skiers who were stuck in Summit Park, and in late February rescued two men who built a snow cave in the Uinta Mountains. Both reports were made amid snowstorms and likely occurred in areas that users would have been able to get out of if it hadn’t been for deep snow.
There have also been several reports of avalanches, most of which have had favorable outcomes. However, Search and Rescue crews were also dispatched to the first fatal side since 2021, which occurred on March 9 in the Upper Weber Canyon backcountry.
Fortunately, most people calling for help have operational cell phones or satellite communication devices, Siddoway said. These tools provide exact coordinates to first responders and allow for messages to be relayed between the party and their rescuers.
“Those devices that can two-way text are really advantageous. They can hit the SOS and say they need help,” he said. “Then, they’re able to communicate either with the company, the provider, or they can communicate by text with their emergency contact so we can know exactly what we’re getting into, what the circumstances are, how prepared they are … With the increased [backcountry] usage and subscription to these types of services, it’s been very helpful to us.”
There’s also a program that started around three years ago to help Search and Rescue members obtain newer equipment. For example, team members can access top-of-the-line snowmobiles, regardless of their experience level, through community partnerships.
“The Search and Rescue, the snowmobiles we may have in our trailers, could be four or five years old, and not as powerful,” Siddoway said. “Seeing that need, seeing the need for the team to become familiar with the areas, we were able to enhance the skills of our team, enhance the equipment they’re using, which has directly affected our response.”
Summit County Dispatch typically informs Siddoway or Search and Rescue Commander Kory Vernon when a report comes in, who then collaborate to collect more information about the circumstances and attempt to contact the individuals involved. The group then coordinates with Vice Commander Kevin Todd, the head of the snowmobile team, to determine the type of response.
“Is an all-out, call-out page needed? Or is it something that a couple of members and a snowcat can take care of,” Siddoway explained.
The responding volunteers then meet at Search and Rescue’s Kamas location to formulate a plan. Often, they’re accompanied by a snowcat for additional support.
Siddoway said it’s important for individuals who think they may need help to call 911 early so Search and Rescue has adequate time to respond. He also urged caution for people using advanced equipment that allows them to reach areas that may be beyond their capabilities.
By chance, Search and Rescue snowmobile team members happened to be training in the Dry Fork area of Weber Canyon two weeks before they were dispatched to help the men who had built the makeshift snow cave. That night, there were low light and stormy conditions, but the crew had become familiar with the area after consistently traversing through it during the day.
One of the goals for Search and Rescue leaders is to cultivate the interests of volunteers. They offer a variety of training opportunities focused on areas such as high-angle, swift water, ice, avalanche and snowmobile rescues. General members typically meet once a month, with some of the specialty teams training more often. There’s also a full-day winter training, where members were asked to participate in a simulated avalanche response. The group has hosted nine training sessions so far in 2023.
Search and Rescue has grown its ranks to 40 members, a five-person increase since 2020, when a freeze was enacted amid the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the most volunteers the team has had in recent years, Siddoway said, but it’s still below the 50-member cap.
“Every time, I am amazed at the men and women of Search and Rescue who drop everything at 3 o’clock in the morning to respond to these calls, and the fantastic work that they do,” Siddoway said.
People heading into the backcountry are advised to never travel alone and to make sure they’re prepared with survival supplies in case they become stranded. Siddoway said communication devices have also been helpful, but groups should also tell a family member or close friend where they are heading. Staying up to date on the weather and monitoring the Utah Avalanche Center forecast is crucial, too.
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