Summit County Search and Rescue adjusts to influx of users and the pandemic
‘There are so, so many people out there’
The pandemic drove people to head for the hills, the popular thinking goes, a COVID-fueled exodus as people sought outdoor recreation and a safer way to get out of the house.
But when that adventure turns out not to be so safe, it’s up to members of Summit County’s Search and Rescue team to respond.
“There are so, so many people out there,” said Kevan Todd, the team’s vice commander. He said parked cars can stretch 2 miles from a popular lot on the Mirror Lake Highway.
That would threaten to strain search-and-rescue resources even in the best of times, but last year certainly was not that. It featured a backcountry snowpack of rare instability and danger, resulting in multiple fatal avalanches, and the pandemic itself provided logistical challenges that prevented team members from training together or responding to calls the way they normally would.
Despite all of that, Todd and Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Siddoway, who oversees the program, said the number of times the team has mobilized to head into the field is on track to match a typical recent year, and that the team has adapted to the challenging circumstances.
Search and Rescue mobilized 91 times in 2020, Siddoway said, down slightly from the 102 mobilizations in 2019. Despite the slight drop in 2020, demand has increased over the last five years on the service, which is staffed entirely with volunteers other than leadership positions with the Sheriff’s Office.
And Siddoway said those apparently declining numbers might be misleading. He and Todd both said it felt as though the team was at least as busy as in 2019. And some of the calls may not have been recorded in the usual fashion, Siddoway said, as he and the administrative team participated heavily in the county’s COVID-19 response earlier this year.
Add to that the fact that the team basically could not train for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, and that trainings are included in mobilization numbers.
Acting in his capacity as the interim county emergency manager, Siddoway devoted his time almost exclusively to setting up the county’s emergency operations center as the pandemic hit locally a year ago.
“The commander (Kory Vernon) and the vice commander (Todd), basically they just stepped up and took Search and Rescue off my plate for the months that the emergency operations center was active, and very active early in the pandemic, or it would have been nearly impossible for me to do both,” Siddoway said.
The county has since hired Kathryn McMullin as its full-time emergency manager.
“Last year as COVID restrictions hit, we saw a huge increase — or what appeared to us and to the (U.S.) Forest Service — a huge increase in visitors,” Siddoway said. “In a weekend in March, it would look like a holiday weekend in summer months.”
With the danger of spreading the virus between team members, Search and Rescue leadership began leaning on a core group of veteran volunteers to respond to the bulk of the calls.
“We will call maybe three to four people and limit our response … rather than bring 20 team members out in an all-out page for an incident we can accomplish and accomplish safely with five of us,” Siddoway said. “That has been a huge shift in protocol that we put in place.”
That led to concerns that team members would burn out, which Siddoway said he did his best to monitor. The team often deals with death and tragedy, and the job can be emotionally and physically exhausting.
The two recent fatal avalanches near the boundaries of Park City Mountain Resort were what Siddoway called a full “page out,” with about 20 Search and Rescue volunteers responding, including the snowmobile team that Todd leads.
He said that avalanche fatalities are still tragic to encounter, even after his quarter-century of experience, but that the calls provided useful training for newer team members.
“It’s always tough because they’re — whether they’re skiing or snowmobiling — they’re still a fellow outdoorsman,” Todd said. “It’s just tough.”
This year’s unusually dangerous snowpack has created challenges and provided learning opportunities, he added.
“I’ve lived in Kamas pretty much my whole life and know the Uintas pretty well, and I know what slides and what doesn’t. But this year, it’s such a crapshoot, and when it does slide, it’s big,” he said.
He said he’s headed out with members of the snowmobile team virtually every recent Saturday to familiarize newer members with common recreation areas in the mountains and keep an eye on the evolving snowpack.
As the pandemic wore on, the team eventually developed what Siddoway called a “battle rhythm,” and were able to resume training and rely on a broader swath of the team members to respond to calls.
The team met recently for a multi-day avalanche class taught by the Utah Avalanche Center, something that Siddoway said hadn’t happened for years. And Todd said the amount of training has picked up in recent months as he tries to integrate a handful of new volunteers onto the snowmobile team he leads.
The Search and Rescue team is growing as a whole, Siddoway said, receiving more applications than he can recall for at least five years. He said there are around 35 rostered volunteers, and that his goal is to push the squad to 50.
Todd estimated he’d responded to an average of two rescue incidents per week, adding that advances in technology have helped members of the public get deeper into the backcountry than ever before, sometimes encountering situations they aren’t prepared to handle.
“Our philosophy is, whatever gets thrown our way, we’re going to take care of the job, and that’s kind of how we’ve approached everything about it, from COVID to avalanches,” he said. “Whatever gets thrown our way, we figure it out, and at the end of the day, we get the job done.”
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Jenn Armstrong-Solomon provides the services of her trauma-sensitive yoga nonprofit, Tall Mountain Wellness, free of charge to groups like the Summit County Drug Court and the county jail.