Our view: By the light of the moon …
Keeping Routt County Search and Rescue strong
Search and Rescue provides a vital service, and one of the best ways to support the organization is to take more responsibility for our own safety.
The story in Steamboat Today about a female hiker who lost her way on Hahn’s Peak Aug. 14 was a reminder of how much we all depend on the volunteers at Routt County Search and Rescue.
It’s also a reminder of SAR’s continuing need to recruit new volunteers who are willing to train year round so they can drop everything — their jobs and time with their families — to set out, often in the dark during a blizzard when avalanche conditions prevail, to come to the aid of a stranger in distress.
Rescuing the lost hiker on Hahn’s Peak turned out to be almost as simple as locating her by the faint signal of her phone and advising her to walk in the direction of the moon until she reached a road. Would that all rescues were that straightforward.
More problematic is boosting SAR’s volunteer base.
SAR board president Chad Bowdre told Steamboat Today Aug. 9 that the membership of his organization is down to 20 from about 50 a decade ago. The technology packed into smart phones in 2016 and the impressive ability of the dispatchers at Routt County Combined Communications to plot the precise location of lost hikers by pinging their phones means SAR probably doesn’t need 50 volunteers any longer.
And the days when it took emergency responders long hours of searching on foot and by air to locate people lost in the backcountry are receding into the past.
So, our first piece of advice is that people who head into the backcountry seeking recreation fully charge their phones in advance and consider carrying a portable power booster to extend their battery life.
But cell phones alone won’t solve the recruitment shortfall SAR is currently experiencing. There will always be rescues that demand specialized skills, cool heads and strong bodies. That’s why we owe such a debt of gratitude to SARS volunteers, who are willing to train year round and sacrifice their personal lives to come to the aid of others.
Like most mountain towns, Steamboat is home to a legion of backcountry guides and people with first responder and other emergency certifications. They include whitewater guides, fishing guides, hunting guides and more. In the case of river guides, the whitewater season is brief, and we wonder if there is a way for SAR to tap into that pool of talent and experience on a seasonal or spot basis.
Far be it from it for us to tell the SAR board how to do its job, but we also wonder if the six-month probationary period and the requirement that volunteers be trained in all phases of backcountry rescue is a deterrent to broadening volunteer bases. Could adjunct members from the guiding industry bolster SAR membership?
We feel some gratitude to the lost hiker involved in the rescue on Hahn’s Peak this week for being willing to share her story of how she became disoriented on the familiar mountain in North Routt. Some of her missteps provide teaching moments.
The hiker set out in late afternoon wearing shorts and a tank top and carrying a limited supply of water. Anyone who has ever been caught in a dense August snowstorm in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area is unlikely to head into the backcountry again without the means to start a fire and a high-quality waterproof rain jacket and pants.
A light fleece hat, extra socks and yes, fleece gloves (even in summer) couldn’t hurt. A sturdy reflective tarp with grommets and some parachute cord can easily be turned into a shelter. And modern hydration packs allow anyone to comfortably carry several liters of water.
Those are some of the basics that should always be in one’s pack.
People who are relatively new to the area would be wise to seek hiking companions for their first adventurous hikes. If you are unfamiliar with a trail, stop by a local outdoor store and pick up a waterproof, topographical map. And don’t hesitate to stop by the offices of the Hahn’s Peak Ranger District, 925 Weiss Drive, on the south side of Steamboat, or call 970-870-2299 for current trail reports.
One of the most obvious things all of us can do to support Search and Rescue is to minimize the need for its services.
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