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Search and Rescue
Pagosa’s response to backcountry emergencies

The Upper San Juan Search and Rescue Team — you have likely heard of this volunteer organization, but if you’re not an active outdoor enthusiast, you may be unaware of how often it’s called upon to assist someone in distress. And, you may not know the complexities and number of individuals involved in any search or rescue mission.

Local residents and tourists alike enjoy hiking, rock climbing, snowshoeing, fishing, hunting or simply taking a stroll to enjoy our mountain air and scenery. Occasionally, people become so absorbed in their activity that, in a split second, a peaceful outing can be ruined by a sudden storm, a single misstep on the trail, or a medical condition that suddenly rears its ugly head.

When an emergency arises in the backcountry, highly-trained individuals are alerted and are soon in place to provide assistance.

A search and rescue organization has operated in Archuleta County for several years, but it has been in the last 2 1/2 years that the system has been refined and brought to its current level of training and efficiency.

The rescue process begins with the Office of Emergency Management, a division of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department. In this department, with headquarters located at the old airport complex on Piedra Road, the individual on duty constantly monitors the county radio and is aware of 911 or other emergency calls that come in. When an outdoor emergency arises, the OEM deputy contacts a member of the Incident Command for Search and Rescue. With the exception of the OEM deputies, all in the Search and Rescue organization are volunteers, but their activities come under the guidance and jurisdiction of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department. This is in accordance with Colorado state guidelines for all search and rescue groups.

The incident command group was formed by Sheriff Pete Gonzalez to address the need for expansion and further development of the search and rescue operation in the county. One of four group members is always on call in case of an emergency.

“This is,” said Diane Bigley, one of the Incident Command (IC) officers, “the buck stops here group. The reported incident is carefully evaluated, and needs and procedures are determined. Everything that is set in place by an IC officer must follow procedures set forth by the government’s Incident Command System principles.”

A starting point is needed, so the incident commander tries to interview the reporting party to gather as much pertinent information as possible. The commander has the responsibility for maintaining a “safety first” policy for team members and the injured party.

When the need is determined, a communications volunteer is notified. This is the person who handles radio logistics and calls for team members, equipment, etc.

Personnel for a physical rescue will consist of either the Upper San Juan Search and Rescue Team (foot/ground missions) or the Mounted Search and Rescue Team for missions that involve greater distances, rough terrain, etc. These two groups train together and work closely with one another. The mounted rescue group can also be called upon to serve in large scale operations, either “search” or “rescue.”

A radio communications group is also brought in. Radio communications are set up at the trailhead of an operation and/or at the OEM office. This is for coordination, monitoring and constant communication with field groups for the duration of the mission.

Responders normally report to the Office of Emergency Management on Piedra Road. Here, they receive more detailed information, determine their needs, receive specific assignments and decide on the equipment they will need for the mission. They are then deployed to the best starting point for the mission.

Volunteers provide all their own equipment, which is kept packed and ready at all times. Each person is trained to be self-sufficient for 24-48 hours. This means carrying in food and water, proper spare clothing, a good light, and sleeping gear such as a tarp, tent or sleeping bag, depending on the nature of the emergency. A pack typically weighs around 25 pounds. Each member knows that when he or she is helping to carry out an injured party, someone else in the group will be shouldering the weight of an additional bag on the way out.

Ideally, it takes 16 people to move one immobile person one mile on a litter/stretcher. At a minimum, six people are needed as carriers, while two are “resting” as they all walk out.

Team members rotate position whenever necessary. They do this for “as long as it takes” according to Leo Milner, current head of the ground rescue team (Upper San Juan Search and Rescue). He spoke of one rescue that lasted five hours, and another that took over seven hours.

Milner went on to explain some difficulties in transport. “It is often hard to hold on and balance the litter when the trail is icy or narrow. Transport often continues well past nightfall, which also increases the difficulty and slows the rescue. Lightning, thunder, rain and the specifics of the medical situation also determine the ease or the difficulty of the rescue.”

Milner noted that hunting season is the busiest time of year. People get lost: they take a tumble when they are watching for the elusive elk, rather than where they are going; have a heart attack; cut a leg while dressing out their kill; or sometimes fall from horses. Often, hunters will be reported missing when they do not return to camp or to town at an appointed time. These searches are often challenging because it is almost impossible to pinpoint where a hunter might wander in his search for an animal.

In 2008 Search and Rescue was involved in 34 missions. So far, in 2009, there have been 29.

Some injured parties were locals, and others were area visitors. The rescues occurred in all seasons, all kinds of weather, and in daylight and darkness. A young girl fell, hit her head and was knocked unconscious. A local woman suffered severe ankle and leg breaks in a fall in a remote location. This was the above-mentioned seven-hour rescue, much of which was done after dark in difficult terrain. Another time a man was rescued by climbers after he was stranded while trying to climb Piedra Falls. A man suffering from pulmonary edema was stabilized on location, then flown out for treatment. Time was of the essence in this operation. The man, who survived, would have died had he been carried out along the trail.

A rescue that put training and agility to the test was one involving a man who had been stranded for two days after a fall on a ledge. In this case, a Blackhawk helicopter had to be brought in. An eight-person rescue team was dropped on a small outcropping. Ropes were used to reach the man, who was suffering from exposure and frostbite. He was stabilized on site; one team member lifted him to the helicopter and the victim was flown to safety and treatment. Remaining rescue team members had to climb out of the location and walk back to ground transportation.

Unfortunately, a mission will sometimes turn into “recovery” rather than rescue. On one occasion, a party was posing for a photo at the overlook up Wolf Creek Pass, backed up too far, and plummeted to death in the valley below. Team members also assisted in a recovery mission when a plane crashed in a remote southern part of the state in the fall of 2007.

Search and Rescue members do not charge for rescues, nor do they receive a salary. The only cost to the injured party would be incurred if medical transport by helicopter or ambulance is required. Rescuers can, however, be reimbursed by the State of Colorado for certain expenses, such as mileage or lost or damaged equipment. A team member was recently reimbursed for eyeglasses that were lost during a mission.

Such reimbursement is received from state funds collected through the individual purchase of a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) card. With the purchase of this card ($3 annually or $12 for 5 years), you can help ensure that trained and well-equipped search and rescue teams will respond, should you become lost or in need of rescue. (If you purchase a state fishing or hunting license, the CORSAR card is included with your license.) Note: this is not an “insurance card.”

Each search and rescue involves many team members, each of whom brings a variety of talents to the group. All are committed to the search and rescue motto: “That Others May Live.” Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds — some medical and some not. The ages of the volunteers currently range from early 30s to late 60s. Some have full-time jobs in the community and some are not employed, or are retired.

There is ongoing training for everyone in this group. A number of local volunteers recently completed an extensive “First Responder Training,” conducted by local Emergency Medical Services personnel. Skills that were mastered (or reviewed in many cases) included basic life support, transport procedures, spine immobilization, the use of a defibrillator, on-site patient evaluation, oxygen application and bleeding control. At the end of the 60-plus hours of training all class members successfully passed both a state-sanctioned physical and written exam.

Training does not stop here. In addition to formal group training sessions, small groups work together to keep physically and mentally alert. For example, last winter a group hiked through snow, built a snow cave and spent the night outdoors. This was done so they would have prior experience should they ever have to be out overnight during a winter rescue mission.

New volunteers are always welcomed and trained for ground or mounted search and rescue, for radio communications, for support with food and supplies on extended searches, or for support at trailheads. There is a local couple who, with their dogs, are in training so there will be a local canine unit in place by next year.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact the Sheriff’s Department at 264-8430 (do not call 911 for this!), or Leo Milner with Upper San Juan Search and Rescue at 946-4780, or e-mail Diane Bigley at drbigley@springmail.com.