Search and Rescue: When the Unthinkable Happens

The peace and beauty of a backcountry ride is a mountain biker’s dream. Hitting up iconic routes like Colorado’s Monarch Crest is a bucket list item for many riders. For the vast majority, the Crest provides a mountain adventure replete with gorgeous scenery, sweet alpine singletrack and gnarly descents. For most, the adventure is followed …

Getting distracted by the scenery on a narrow mountain trail could lead to severe consequences
Getting distracted by the scenery on a narrow mountain trail could lead to severe consequences

The peace and beauty of a backcountry ride is a mountain biker’s dream. Hitting up iconic routes like Colorado’s Monarch Crest is a bucket list item for many riders. For the vast majority, the Crest provides a mountain adventure replete with gorgeous scenery, sweet alpine singletrack and gnarly descents. For most, the adventure is followed by relaxing with friends over a beer while recounting the ride and comparing near misses, crashes, and the scrapes and bruises that serve as a mountain biker’s “badge of courage.” For an unfortunate few, however, the adventure is ended early by a serious accident. For those riders, Search and Rescue becomes their new best friend, as in this August 25, 2013 Monarch Crest rescue:

“Chaffee County Search and Rescue-South (CCSAR-S) assisted a Salida man after he fell while mountain biking on the Monarch Crest trail Saturday. Barry Blocker, Salida, used his InReach Satellite communicator to contact Chaffee County Communications Center at about 10:00am to report that his friend, Ramsey Lama, 32, had fallen near the Greens Creek trail intersection with the Monarch Crest trail and suffered an unstable neck injury.
CCSAR-S mobilized with 7 rescuers. A party of SAR members on two trail motorcycles made contact with Lama just north of the Greens Creek shelter. After medical attention it was determined that his injuries were severe enough to require transport by helicopter. Lama was flown from the Crest by Flight for Life at about 2:00pm Saturday afternoon and transported to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood.” (Source: Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office Press Release)

Monarch Crest Trail. All photos by Scott Anderson except where noted.

No one sets out on a mountain bike ride intending to need SAR, but it happens far more frequently than one would imagine. Just Google “Mt. Biker Rescued” and you’ll find stories from around the world. Just in the past few weeks there were rescues in Boulder County, CO, Angeles National Forest, CA and Pisgah National Forest, NC. You can find an entire history of mountain biker rescues by Mountain Rescue Team in the UK and New Zealand. The rescued riders range from locals to tourists, newbies to experts, green to black diamond trail riders, and injured to lost. Some missions take just a couple hours, some many, many hours… even overnight. Mesa County SAR recently had a mission involving an overdue mountain biker on the 18 Road / North Fruita Desert trails. The rider was located after dark, uninjured, but quite cold.

Search and Rescue 101: Funding

As a mountain biker and member of Chaffee County Search and Rescue – North (CCSAR-N) in Buena Vista, Colorado, I’d like to share some information on how SAR operates, how to minimize your chance of needing SAR, and how to help US help YOU if you do need SAR.

To be clear, I can only speak very specifically regarding Chaffee County and a bit more generally regarding Colorado. Every county, every state, and every country handles Search and Rescue operations in their own way, though there are many commonalities. It would be wise to do some research about your local SAR and where you plan to vacation.

Here’s one example:

“For many hours the anguished wife searched for her new husband, missing above timberline in our mountains. The sun set and after dark a front rolled in, enveloping the peak in solid clouds — in which her new husband and, finally, the rescue team members, could see but a few feet. The rescuers risked walking off the top of invisible 500′ cliffs in the dark.

Why didn’t she call for help for those many hours?

She was afraid that calling for help would cost her thousands of dollars. She had begun to wonder which bank account, hers or her new husband’s, held enough money to pay the bill she expected.” (Source: CSRB)

The State of Colorado expressly forbids charging for rescue. The National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) agrees:

“To eliminate the fear of being unable to pay for having one’s life saved, SAR services should be rendered to persons in danger or distress without subsequent cost-recovery from the person(s) assisted, unless prior arrangements have been made. The mission of SAR organizations is to save lives, not just the lives of those who can afford to pay the bill. As such, methods and means should be developed and used that diffuse the cost of humanitarian SAR operations among the many, allowing anyone to reasonably expect emergency aid without regard to their circumstances.” (Source: NASAR Position)

According to the previous release,

“The idea of not billing for SAR services confuses many people. However, SAR professionals across the nation know of many instances in which someone – after an unforeseen accident, or spending hours searching for their missing companion – delayed calling for help. Each ‘remembered’ hearing, seeing, or reading, ‘somewhere’ that rescues and searches cost ‘thousands of dollars’ – which they could not afford. Some have even chosen not to call for help, or refused emergency help.”

So, how then, is SAR funded? Here in Colorado, SAR teams are comprised of volunteers who operate under the direction of the County Sheriff. Every county budgets in its own way, but is bolstered by some reimbursement from the state SAR fund. According to the CSRB FAQ:

“Team members contribute their time to help anyone who needs assistance. The actual money spent may be as little as the fuel for vehicles to respond, or as much as many thousands of dollars if the mission lasts many days and involved aircraft. Ultimately, any expenses are borne by county sheriff or the SAR team.

Colorado SAR teams do not, and Colorado sheriffs may not, charge for SAR services.”

For example, my team, CCSAR-N, as an all-volunteer team, is responsible for all of our expenses, though the county does pay for fuel for team-owned vehicles and utilities for our building. Each member pays for his/her own personal equipment (like the required backpack that’s equipped for surviving in the backcountry for at least 24 hours), and the team must raise funds to purchase team vehicles (4×4 trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles, swiftwater rig) and all team rescue equipment (high angle ropes and systems, avalanche safety and rescue equipment, medical equipment, subject evacuation trailers and litters, etc….) and training expenses.

Search and Rescue Training. Photo: Scott Anderson
Chaffee County Search and Rescue-North Training

Some funds come via donations and some come from fundraising events that CCSAR-N volunteers participate in. The Colorado SAR fund is hugely helpful if the rescued subject has a current CORSAR card, a hunting or fishing license, or an ATV, snowmobile, or motorboat registration. This is NOT insurance, the rescue is FREE for the subject, but it allows our team to be reimbursed by the state for costs incurred on a mission.

SAR Mission

Let’s take a look at a typical mission, based on a 2015 CCSAR-N rescue of a mountain biker.

At 3:10pm, dispatch notified the on-call Incident Command (IC) member that a caller reported a mountain bike accident on the Alpine Tunnel Trail above St. Elmo. The subject had crashed his bike and fell down a 40-foot embankment. The Alpine Tunnel Trailhead is about 20 miles from Buena Vista on paved and dirt roads which gain 2,000′ on the way to St. Elmo, then up another 1,100′ over 6 miles on a narrow dirt road.

By 4pm, fourteen CCSAR-N members had responded; IC deployed several members directly to the site to make contact with the subject, while other members reported to the CCSAR-N Bay to take team vehicles with ATVs on trailers and all rescue equipment to the site. A trailhead command vehicle was deployed to set up radio communications antennae and relays. A Flight for Life helicopter was put on stand-by since the extent of injury was unknown.

Flight For Life

By 5pm, the ATVs arrived at St. Elmo, unloaded, and started up the 6-mile dirt road to the trailhead, while a CCSAR-N Hasty Team on foot headed up the 2.5 miles to the subject.

By 6pm, the Hasty Team had found the injured mountain biker to have broken bones, and they began to package him in the Big Wheel Stokes litter to wheel him down the 2.5 miles to the ambulance. Having no life threatening injuries, Flight for Life was stood down.

CCSAR-N Team wheels injured MTBer off of the Alpine Tunnel Trail. Photo: Erik Rasmussen

At 7:30pm the subject was at the trailhead, transferred to the ambulance, and ready for the 30-mile transport to the hospital.

At 8pm, all SAR members had left the field to head back to the CCSAR-N Bay, where they would re-stage the vehicles and equipment and finish reports before heading home.

Often folks wonder, “why did a rescue take so long?!” Consider the sequence of events in a typical SAR mission like the St. Elmo mt. biker rescue:

  1. Accident occurs.
  2. Reporting party (RP) can’t get cell service.
  3. RP must get back to his/her vehicle, then drive to cell reception.
  4. RP calls 9-1-1.
  5. Dispatch pages SAR IC.
  6. IC pages SAR team (all volunteers who may be at work or may be many miles away).
  7. IC develops a rescue plan as responding members assemble.
  8. Team deploys to site.
  9. A Hasty Team reaches subject and assesses injuries and rescue needs.
  10. Team hauls in all equipment needed, usually on foot, as most MTB trails are not ATV accessible. (Equipment may include technical ropes systems, medical supplies, stokes litter, blankets, etc….)
  11. Team stabilizes subject.
  12. If helicopter evac is needed, team locates a suitable landing zone (LZ) and directs the helicopter to LZ while others transport the subject to the LZ (rarely is it possible for a helicopter to land near the subject).
  13. If no helicopter is needed or available, team transports the subject to an ambulance – a process that can take numerous very difficult hours.
  14. All members and gear get out of the field.
  15. Team restores all gear to mission-ready status.
  16. IC completes all reports.

***Add even more time if subject’s specific location is not known***

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Reach Air Medical Services helicopter awaiting subject transfer on Mt. Antero. Photo: Nancy Anderson

Bottom Line: Many of the most awesome places to mountain bike are not easily accessible, nor do they allow reliable cell service. That means you need to be as self-sufficient as possible. While every SAR team is dedicated to helping those in need, none is actively looking for a mission!

Avoiding SAR

So how can you minimize the chance of needing SAR?

  1. Be sure your bike is in good working condition before you start your ride.
  2. Carry repair tools and know how to use them (or at least ride with someone who does!) It can be a long walk out and stuff can get ugly quickly.
  3. Carry “just-in-case” supplies, particularly extra clothing layers for dropping temps and rain. A first aid kit is vital in case of injury. Having the supplies and skills to stop severe bleeding, assess a head injury, immobilize a broken bone, or care for hypothermia can allow you to get safely home without calling 9-1-1.
  4. Plan your ride, carry navigation tools (map, compass, GPS), and know how to use them!
  5. Have a way to communicate… do NOT rely on your cell phone in the backcountry. An emergency device like a SPOT or InReach not only allows you to access help where cell service isn’t available, but also provides your exact location.
  6. Recognize that stuff happens and prepare to WAIT… sometimes for a very long time! A quick ride on a heavily-traveled trail system that is never far from town and roads can be done with just a water bottle, but any ride that takes you off the beaten path merits some “what-if” preparation. Are you equipped to park it in the cold, rain, dark… while injured… until SAR arrives?
Riding on the Arizona Trail in the Sonoran Desert is a long way from help

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If You Need Help

Despite being prepared and self-sufficient, you’ve found yourself (or your buddy) in need of SAR. How can you help US help YOU? Mesa County SAR, which sees several mountain bike missions each year, passed along a few tips:

  1. If you’re LOST–stay put, don’t move. It is ten times easier to find you if you’re not moving.
  2. Don’t ride ALONE–In the event you’re injured, your riding partner can go get help or stay with you until help arrives.
  3. Stay calm, cool, and collected: don’t be afraid to call for help if lost!

Some additional ways to help US help YOU:

  1. Be able to communicate your location! Best is an emergency device, but at least have a partner who can get out and call 9-1-1 with your specific location. At the very least, tell someone where you are riding and when to expect you back. That narrows the possibilities for SAR from hundreds of miles to a general trail system.
  2. Wear something bright or have something bright with you. Having a headlamp or some kind of light is wonderful.
  3. Always carry a loud whistle (3 blasts means “HELP”)… a whistle can often be heard when a yell cannot.
  4. CSRB offers some more information here.
  5. Financially support SAR. Wherever you live or play, you can always make a direct donation to the team of your choice. In Colorado, it would be amazing if every single person who ever sets foot outdoors contributed to the Colorado SAR fund!
MTB safety talk at Boneshaker Cycles in Buena Vista, CO

You can purchase a $3 annual or a $12 five-year card online. Helping financially helps SAR help YOU by providing up-to-date, quality equipment and training. That helps highly-trained volunteers get to you as quickly and effectively as possible.

CCSAR-N members receive ‘Lift Ticket’ training from Flight For Life Colorado

And finally: keep in mind that when your mountain bike ride goes from awesome to awful, the SAR volunteers who respond to get you out safely willingly gave up their own ride, family event, work, or sleep to help you.

Your Turn: What questions do you have about SAR and how it works? Ask away in the comments section below!