The rescuers
On the ground – and in the air – with Search and Rescue

by Brandon Mathis

In the rugged San Juan Mountains, getting lost after dark could mean minor injury, a week in the wilderness or worse. Fortunately, La Plata County Search and Rescue is ready to face the danger and help people get back home.

When a search and rescue call comes in, it immediately goes to La Plata County Director of Emergency Preparedness Butch Knowlton. He determines what kind of mission will be implemented before filtering the information to team leaders and volunteers – a group of well-trained and devoted personnel who are always on call. There is also a text-messaging system linking the rescue community. But Tom McNamara, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said the rescue effort is more broad based than meets the eye. “From the railroad to private resources, there is a tremendous amount of coordination between groups,” he said. “The fire departments, medical teams, everyone, it means a lot.” A whitewater emergency last August is a good example of such coordinated efforts. A competent party of five was kayaking the Animas River near the Rockwood Box when a Telluride woman swam from her boat and badly broke her ankle. “In a river scenario, you don’t have a lot of time,” said Aaron Ball, swift water team leader and owner of Southwest Rescue, a wilderness medical training operation based in Durango. The woman was stranded on the opposite side of the river from her party, and any attempt at self-rescue would have been life threatening.

“We got a ride on those little pop cars,” Ball said, referring to the Durango/Silverton Railroad track cars. “We sent a team to the other side of the river and were able to shoot a line across.” Rescuers quickly reached and stabilized the woman. “We set up a drooping high line, raised her up over the river and transported her to the other side, all under just a little moonlight,” he said. “We got to her about 7 p.m., and we were out of there by 11 p.m. That we were able to do that in the dark was a testament of how well we work as a team.”

Until 1987, the cost of rescues in rural counties was causing financial disaster. Under the umbrella of the La Plata County Sheriffs Department, search and rescue efforts relied on taxpayer dollars. In Colorado’s backcountry, such searches are expensive, and with recreation increasing along with calls for lost or hurt parties, a new plan was needed.

Following a staggering search for a lost hiker in Mineral County, the State of Colorado developed the Search and Rescue Fund. As a result, licenses for hunting, fishing, ATVs and snowmobiles now include a surcharge. “Whenever a licensed person got lost, the sheriffs department could tap into it,” Knowlton said of the fund, “but it also created problems. People were visiting from out of state and running into trouble and the sheriffs were still obligated to go out and get them. So, it was amended to create the Colorado Hiking Certificate. It’s a well-thought-out program”

“Everyone needs a hiking permit,” said Christina Knickerbocker, a search and rescue volunteer. The price for a hiking certificated is $3 per year, or $12 for five, and they are available at outdoor stores in town.

The program has been so successful that other states are considering similar initiatives. “There are other states looking into what Colorado has done,” said Knowlton.

Predominantly, sheriffs rely on volunteer personnel for search and rescue efforts. There are several teams that make up La Plata County Search and Rescue, including K-9, communications, technical ropes, swift water, horse, mountain bike and hiking teams. “There are about 110 people on the roster,” Knowlton said, “a huge group of dedicated people.”

Knickerbocker noted that everyone involved is contributing to a much bigger whole. “We all have the same amount of training each year,” she said. “Everybody stays on top of their game. We live in the kind of terrain where all of our teams get used.”

Attorney Kathryn Steelman leads the K-9 team and said that dogs are extremely useful in locating lost people. “If you have someone lost in the wilderness, a dog can be used to track or pick up a trail to establish a direction of travel,” she said. “Plus, dogs can cover a lot more ground than people on foot, so if you have a large area, they are a tremendous advantage.”

Steelman and Knickerbocker recalled an incident involving a woman with Alzheimer’s who became lost. She had been last seen early in the day in an area with thick brush, presenting the potential for a huge search. “The team had determined a likely area where she might be,” said Steelman, “so I put my dogs in that sector. They air scented and found this lady right before dark.”

Photographer Gunnar Conrad leads the ski/snow travel and avalanche team, and has been generally impressed with recreationists’ judgment. “We aren’t getting called out that much in the winter,” he said. “We help out occasionally up in Silverton, and we’ve had some ice climbing incidents in our county. But I’d say most people are doing a good job of being careful out there.” Conrad and Knowlton recall an ice-climbing incident in Woodard canyon near Durango, where a man fell more than 100 feet. “He was critical, and we had to bring a helicopter with a long line in to lift him off the ice, and we took him down to my field,” said Knowlton, who has property near the canyon. The man was then flown to Denver.

Knowlton also commented on the caution of outdoor enthusiasts. “We’re all amazed that we don’t see more of that kind of thing, but there is better equipment, and people are more skilled, better prepared,” he said. “But when we do get a call, it’s more serious in nature, and we have to respond quickly.

Skip Favreau, manager of Gardenswartz Outdoors and volunteer rescuer, said that La Plata County Search and Rescue has earned a reputation as being among the best. “With regards to our skill level, like the night high line we did in the Animas Gorge, there are only a few SARs in the whole country that could pull off a complex rescue like that, so from a technical standpoint, we are superior,” he said.

“We’ve had guys jumping out of helicopters,” said Knickerbocker, “Landing on ledges to climb down and start searching. There are some seriously talented people, and then we have the community and the teams that we join with. It’s really incredible.”

Knowlton agreed, saying, “It’s the dedication of these people that really makes the difference. Just being there, ready to help someone in need is the most important part of our group.” •



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