In early September a freak storm hit the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, and up to 6 feet of snow fell in some parts of the range, leaving hikers stranded in the backcountry, unprepared for the freezing temperatures.
“It was the craziest storm we’ve ever seen. It took a hundred miles of trees and made a tangled knot of them,” Kenna Tanner, the coordinator for the Tip Top Search and Rescue in Sublette County, Wyoming, said. “We were dealing with hypothermia and exhaustion. It was pretty miraculous that there weren’t any fatalities.”
By 11:30 the first night of the storm, calls from hikers stuck in the backcountry streamed into Tanner’s office — in the 10 days during and after the storm hit, the search and rescue team completed 12 missions.
Tip Top Search and Rescue, a volunteer crew that performs missions on behalf of Sublette County sheriff’s office, usually does about 45 missions a year, but they were already up to 42 by mid October.
This is one of the unseen effects of the pandemic: With much of the world shuttered and with fewer recreation opportunities, more people have been venturing into the outdoors, and in the backcountry, where even a day trip can quickly go awry. National park visitation was already steadily climbing even before the pandemic (in 2019, over 327 million people visited national parks) and it’s been increasing since much of the country began to shut down.
Grand Teton National Park recorded a 1.2% increase in visitations in August. Yellowstone National Park recorded a 21% uptick in visitors in September compared to 2019. And in northern Colorado’s open spaces and national forests, there was a 200% increase in visits through the spring and summer according to 5280, a magazine based out of Denver. On Memorial Day, places like Zion National Park were full by 6:30 a.m.
More visitors has also meant more accidents (i.e. the woman who approached a bison in late June in Yellowstone National Park and was gored) as the experienced and inexperienced hikers flocked to the West’s not quite so wide open spaces.
This has added pressure on search and rescue teams across the country. “We are a very small, very rural community. We got hit hard this year though, I think because of COVID. We’ve never seen this quantity of people in the backcountry,” Tanner, in Sublette County, said.
While there’s not comprehensive data for the year, teams across the West have been reporting higher call volumes.
In Summit County, Colorado, the local search and rescue group told a Denver outlet it already received between 160 to 170 calls, compared to a total of 150 the previous year.
Darrell Cashin, the search and rescue liaison for Washington County, Utah let out a chuckle when asked if he’d been unusually busy this year.
“It has just been constant,” Cashin said.
The record for search and rescue calls in his county prior to this year was 132. By mid-October they’d recorded 142. “We’ve been averaging 14 rescues a month all year long,” Cashin said.
His team is entirely volunteer. Cashin felt so bad about how frequently he had to ask search and rescue team members (who are not paid for their time) to respond to incidents that when he recently got a call from a pair of stranded hikers, he went out by himself to find the lost women. That was despite Cashin’s strict rule that search and rescue volunteers never go on missions alone. “I did it just to give my people a rest.”
While the pandemic has sent more people into the backcountry, many of the trends were on the rise long before March.
In the last few years, Boulder, Colorado had a 20% increase in calls, and in southern Utah calls increased from about 50 or 60 a year to 130 in 2019 according to a report from Pew. And despite a greater need for highly trained people who know how to extricate hikers from the wilderness, many search and rescue teams are still relying on the manpower of volunteers and funding from donations and county coffers.
In Sublette County, Tip Top Search and Rescue, a nonprofit made up of 40 volunteers, performs missions on behalf of the sheriff’s office.
“These are all people that have to get time off work to take care of missions when the time comes,” Tanner, the coordinator for the team and only full-time staff member, said.
Tanner is proud of the team they’ve assembled. “We have some of the most highly trained volunteers,” she said. They have people trained in avalanches and underwater rescue.
They are responsible for one of the largest sections of the Continental Divide Trail, Gannett Peak (the highest peak in Wyoming), and the headwaters of the Green River according to Tanner. “That’s all in the wilderness, and so accessing all of that is difficult because it’s not like we can just take a truck or an ATV up to it. It’s all pretty remote.”
The Sublette County sheriff’s office provides financial support for bigger equipment — like the helicopter it rents in the summer. And in Wyoming, people can choose to donate $2 when buying a fishing, hunting, boating, or snowmobiling license. “That is huge in supporting the costs accrued, because there are no charges in the state of Wyoming and that’s how we’re able to supplement that. Because it has been a lot for counties to foot the bills on all of these people on vacation,” Tanner said.
A few states, like Colorado and Utah, have created search & rescue cards, another way for avid outdoors people to donate to teams across the state.
In Grand County, Utah, funding for search and rescue comes from a tourist tax on lodging, the county, a state fund, and donations — which go towards purchasing equipment and providing training.
“We make it work,” Jim Webster, the commander of Grand County’s search and rescue team said.
Cashin, in Washington County, said while the team has also been able to work with limited resources (occasionally relying on helicopter support from a nearby hospital and calling in deputies) it’s not sustainable. “What if this doesn’t stop?” Cashin asked (and with the way things have been going, call numbers are unlikely to stop rising).
“You feel like you’re running head on into a brick wall. You can see it coming, and you know you have to do something, and you only have so much time to get it done.”
In Teton County, Wyoming, the search and rescue team works closely with the sheriff’s department. They have also set up a foundation to help with additional expenses — like training for avalanche experts.
There are 36 volunteers and one employee that is paid through the sheriff’s office.
“Our volunteers really get the cream of the crop of what they need and want. So they get to attend a lot of extra training and do a lot of extra things. But most teams throughout the state of Wyoming and throughout the nation, do not have the same philanthropy that we have in Teton County,” Stephanie Thomas, executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation, said.
“There’s a lot of teams that are really struggling to figure out the funding to keep their teams equipped and trained to rescue, especially with the increase of people in the backcountry,” Thomas said.
She said in many ways their team is an anomaly — with ample funding and individuals who are willing and eager to volunteer.
Many volunteers spend thousands of dollars of their own money to equip themselves. “So not only are these people giving their time, they’re also giving financially to make this work,” Thomas said.
In an article in Outside Magazine in January titled “America’s Search and Rescue Is in a State of Emergency,” the author wrote, “The volunteer teams that serve as the backbone of operations in the U.S. need additional support.” But the geography of the U.S. and current patchwork system of search and rescue make that hard to achieve. “Ultimately, America probably won’t get a major SAR overhaul until more people die in the outdoors.”
Thomas, in Teton County, has helped counties across Wyoming and some in Utah set up nonprofits to support the work of volunteers, but said she’d love to see states set up more sophisticated ways to fund search and rescue, possibly through the tourism or outdoor recreation industries.
“Because when accidents happen in the mountains, it happens quickly,” Thomas said.
“And if the resources aren’t available, people do die.”