Summit County’s Search and Rescue volunteers sacrifice to find those who are lost or hurt in the wilderness
Kevan Todd found himself in a whiteout blizzard up Chalk Creek near Coalville leading a team on snowmobiles trying to find a lost person. The visibility became so bad they lost the road, but Todd knew the area well enough to head to a nearby fenceline to follow.
The snow was blowing sideways when Todd sensed something was wrong and abruptly stopped, moments before a helicopter touched down just ahead of them.
“I almost ran into a helicopter,” Todd recalled with a smile. “We play in an uncontrolled environment. You gotta know your (stuff), especially if you’re the team leader. You could get someone hurt.”
Todd is a 26-year veteran of Summit County Search and Rescue, a team of about 30 volunteers responsible for a territory the size of Delaware.
Summit County’s nearly 2,000 square miles of diverse terrain includes 13,000-foot peaks and wide swaths of wilderness that entice outdoor enthusiasts and solitude-seekers to leave behind the modern world and lose themselves in nature.
But that wilderness will be just as cold, dark and lonely tonight as it was 300 years ago, a Search and Rescue supporter warns. If a hiker or skier really does get lost, it’s up to Search and Rescue to find them, no matter the time, weather or situation.
Last year, Search and Rescue went into the field on active calls 75 times, about a dozen more than the year before and still more than the year before that. Calls range from transporting medical personnel into the backcountry to assist a hiker with a sprained ankle to rescuing people caught in an avalanche to searching for campers who don’t return home when they’re expected.
Including training missions and calls that were canceled before Search and Rescue arrived, the team mobilized 120 times in 2019. The numbers are climbing as apps that can direct people of all skill levels to trailheads become commonplace, and easy-to-use snow machines bring less-experienced riders deep into the wilderness.
The volunteers who respond have day jobs and the responsibilities that come with everyday life. But when they receive a text message from dispatch — more then twice a week, on average — they drop what they’re doing and prepare to head out into the wilderness for a call that could last two hours or to two days.
It takes a toll on their families, team members said, with unpredictable absences and increased exposure to danger. Searching for people lost in the wilderness is a task that involves risk, exhaustion and at least the possibility of encountering death.
But team members talk about a sense of community and duty to serve that keeps them going. Plus, the work can be fun and there is an adrenaline rush and a sense of accomplishment after a challenging, successful search.
To some, the rationale is no more complicated than the golden rule.
“I would hope someone would help my kids if it was them,” volunteer Bridgette Blonquist said.
Another team member, Dave Diehl, said when someone is lost or hurt in the backcountry, often their only hope is that someone else is out there looking for them.
“We are the hope for these people,” Diehl said.
It is not a failure if the team members find someone after they have died, they said; sometimes, the length or nature of the search makes that a virtual certainty.
Lt. Alan Siddoway, Summit County Sheriff’s Office’s liaison to Search and Rescue, likened a search to a puzzle. He said that there is extensive research done on the behavior of people who have become lost and that searching has become more of a science in recent years.
The Sheriff’s Office opens a missing person investigation for every search. Detectives interview family members about the missing person and use that information to try to predict behavior, like whether a person is calm and likely to remain close by, or whether they are likely to panic.
Siddoway said that, while in most every case, SAR is searching for a person the team members haven’t met, they come to know that person very well in their mind.
He said he often develops close relationships with family members of missing people.
That makes it particularly difficult when it comes time to discontinue a full-time search, as was done a week after 69-year-old hunter Carl Crumrine went missing in the Uintas in October.
“When you have to look at a family and say tomorrow at dark all of this equipment is going to go away — you feel it. You feel it. And they feel it too,” Siddoway said. “It’s a decision we do not take lightly. We’re going to go from 50 persons to three persons there in a couple weeks. … It is probably one of the toughest decisions that we have to make in a search-and-rescue situation, just because of all of the factors, the emotion that’s tied up in it. We become very vested in these calls.”
Those instances, though, are rare. Since 2003, the team has failed to find only three people: Garrett Bardsley, Melvin Heaps and Crumrine.
The names remain top of mind for many Search and Rescue members, the outliers that they can’t quite put behind them.
Todd, the longtime member and team leader, said the Bardsley search still haunts him. Bardsley was 12 when he disappeared while fishing with his father in the Uintas in 2004.
“Tough to leave the scene knowing there was no closure,” Todd said. “Melvin Heaps, Carl Crumrine — not too many days I don’t think about them.”
Siddoway said those searches are not over.
“In my office, in Kamas, there are binders now in the bookshelf there for Garrett Bardsley and for Melvin Heaps. And those binders will be there basically until I leave,” Siddoway said. “I can honestly tell you as I talk with SAR members — and Bardsley obviously being 15 years removed, some of our older members were personally involved in that — they’ll still come up in conversation. Melvin, two years ago, often comes up in conversation: ‘You know — have we considered this?’”
He added that he still hears from those in the search-and-rescue community who head up to the search area to train or to try out new pieces of rescue technology.
Todd said everyone on the team has to be a bit crazy, but there’s a bond that grows among them. He’s seen many members come and go over the years. Some wash out because of the time commitment, or life changes like moving away or starting a family. Others leave after seeing a dead body for the first time or a particularly gruesome scene.
Todd said there are some calls that stay with him, like using the team’s submersible to recover the body of a toddler from 200 feet below the water’s surface.
“That’s one you put in your hard drive, just bury it,” he said.
Those that stick around, though, talk of teammates as family members, and the values one learns during a grueling systematic search.
Blonquist’s dad was a volunteer, and she grew up watching his example. Siddoway said he introduced his son to the team so he could learn life skills and a team-first attitude. Derek Siddoway’s seventh anniversary on the team is this month.
“I wanted Derek to be involved in it so he could learn some life skills from some very good people,” Siddoway said. “How to be a member of this world and productive and know that it’s not just ‘What can you do for me, what do I get out of this?’ You see that – dad’s done it for a number of years and when the kids come on, they possess the skills and the same attitude of ‘How can I help?’”
Search and Rescue members said they concentrate on the smaller tasks during a search and attempt to accomplish the work they’ve been assigned.
Blonquist explained that requires looking for a clue the size of a fingernail or a scrap of clothing in the midst of a vast forest.
Team members talk about a bond that separates them from the rest of the world. Blonquist said she’s reluctant to bring what she’s seen back to her family and how much easier it is to talk with team members who have “been through it.”
Diehl said Siddoway took him aside after he’d seen a deceased victim for the first time. Siddoway wanted to see how he was handling the situation and extended an invitation to talk if it would be helpful, Diehl recalled.
Todd said that bond extends beyond Summit County Search and Rescue to the groups they’ve worked alongside.
“If you walk through this with somebody, you know why he’s up there is the same reason I’m up there,” Todd said.
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