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Wyoming rescue chief rethinks value of GPS device

On July 17th, a New York couple carefully picked their way across a boulder field deep in the Wind River Mountain Range. They were experienced backcountry users.

But sometimes rocks move when you are least expecting it.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton

The couple was on a multi-day backpacking trip, carefully traversing the boulders near the base of 13,809-foot Gannett Peak, when a rock dislodged and rolled into the woman’s leg, breaking her femur and opening her from knee to groin.

About 23 miles from the nearest trailhead and surrounded by rugged terrain, the couple activated their SPOT device and set into motion a rescue operation that would ultimately save her life.

I sat down with Bill Lee, commander of Fremont County’s Search and Rescue about a week after the rescue. Still adjusting to no longer reporting at a daily newspaper, it had driven me crazy as the rescue unfolded to know news was happening and I wasn’t writing a story for the next day for some publication. Most journalists love knowing what is happening in some particular arena. For some it’s political news. For others it’s fires or accidents. For me, it’s mountain rescues.

My interest in mountain rescues began long before I was rescued several years ago when I was in the Wind River Range. While climbing, a boulder came loose and broke my arm on the side of Pingora in the Cirque of the Towers.

To me it’s always a story when other people drop what they are doing to help, and sometimes save a life; sometimes at great risk to their own safety.

And every rescue has a lesson – even if it’s simply a reminder that accidents happen to even the most prepared and experienced.

This particular rescue intrigued me because of the remoteness and tough terrain of the rescue, unanswered questions from initial reports, and the use of a SPOT device, which are continuing to become more common.

As Lee retold the story I was impressed by the logistics of the operations, the dedication of the rescuers who, after putting the woman on a helicopter at about 2 a.m., hunkered down and spent the night waiting for their own ride out at 7 a.m. when flying conditions were safer. But it was at the end of our talk when I asked about things victims can do to make themselves easier to find that Lee said something I hadn’t yet heard from a search and rescue member; always carry a SPOT with you into the backcountry.

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A SPOT locator uses satellite technology that can contact emergency services with GPS coordinates when the emergency button is activated. As SPOT locators have grown in popularity, so have the stories of misuse. Some have activated their SPOT emergency call in the backcountry of the Grand Canyon because they thought they’d run out of water, or they worried over water tasting salty. There were also the stories of people accidentally hitting the emergency button and unknowingly activating a backcountry rescue. Other stories are of those who use their SPOT to check-in with family daily and when they forget, their loved ones fear the worst and call for rescue.

Others have questioned SPOTs as crutches in the backcountry, encouraging people to take risks they might not otherwise, thinking rescue is only a button away.

SPOT calls create challenges for rescuers who simply get GPS coordinates and no information on the nature of the call. They deploy rescue teams unsure if they will find someone with a sprained ankle, or a serious head injury.

A few years ago many rescuers felt ambivalent about the technology, including  Lee. But in the last few years, the SPOT-activated missions he’s led have been warranted and in some cases, Lee said, including the July 17 rescue at the base of Gannett Peak. SPOTs have become so valuable that Lee not only recommends backcountry users carry them, he’ll also make sure at least one member of his rescue team also has one.

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The call arrived at about 3 p.m. to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, said Capt. Ryan Lee.

A SPOT device in the Wind River Mountains had activated an emergency call. The signal was coming from an area near 13,809-foot Gannett Peak.

Like many SPOT users, the couple had left an itinerary with the SPOT company. Lee learned rescuers would be looking for backpackers on a multi-day trip.

Fremont County’s search and rescue is comprised of about 50 active members, all volunteer, said Bill Lee. Each summer the group responds to several major rescues. This was the first of the season. When the call comes in warning that someone is in trouble, Bill Lee assembles a team. Teams take minimal supplies, but enough to stay in the backcountry at least two nights if needed, he said.

Rescue teams almost always have an EMT and carry oxygen and materials to splint bones and control bleeding. Being prepared for anything in the mountains is important, but especially when responding to a SPOT where the nature of the injuries is completely unknown.

In mountain rescues you have to be flexible, Lee said.  Even the best laid plans change.

The first rescue team headed to the GPS coordinates, off just enough that they couldn’t find the victims. It is the same ruggedness that draws people to the mountain range that makes rescues challenging in the Winds. Rough terrain makes it difficult for helicopters and rescuers to arrive on scene.

A Classic Lifeguard helicopter, which can fly at night with the crew using night vision goggles, was sent to the scene. It was the first time Lee worked with the company that began service out of Riverton about six months earlier. Once the position of the signal was recalculated, the helicopter was able to drop rescuers off within about two and a half miles of the victim. But from there the team had to traverse a boulder field and ford a creek. They reached the couple as it was getting dark.

Many areas in the Wind River Range are without cell service. Even the rescue team’s radios didn’t work for much of the rescue. Lee was able to get information from rescuers on the ground that a boulder had injured a woman and she had a tourniquet on the leg. When he heard the word tourniquet he knew it was serious. Tourniquets mean blood loss. “Tourniquet” meant they had to get her out that night.

While communication was down, one rescue member was carrying his own SPOT device which allowed the rescuers to track the group’s movements every 15 minutes. Lee waited and watched the signal, knowing only when the team was moving. It was after 2 a.m. when the helicopter rose from the ground with the patient and her husband. They arrived at Lander Regional Hospital where she underwent surgery.

It was the efforts and skill of the rescue team that saved her life, but it was a situation where time was precious. Had the couple not had a SPOT, how long would it have taken for them to get help?

Lee evaluates each rescue to see what could have gone better and what went well. After this rescue he realized how valuable the SPOT locator was to the rescue team in relaying at least their movement to the command. From now on, he wants at least one team member to carry a SPOT, he said.

And as far as tips for back country users? Carry a SPOT, he said. With the caveat, only activate when it’s truly an emergency.

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In need of rescue?

Here are tips to make you more findable:

  • Wear visible colors while traveling in the backcountry. If someone in your party is injured put on your brightest clothing.
  • Use a mirror or fire to make yourself visible.
  • Be aware of who is in the area. The couple had ran into a NOLS group earlier and had considered trying to track them down.
  • Don’t move the patient. But if you are in a wooded area, send someone uninjured to a more visible location.
  • Tie colorful clothing on a stick that can be waved.
  • Make noise, such as blowing a whistle.
  • Always carry a SPOT and use it when there’s an emergency.

Tips from Bill Lee, Commander of Fremont County Search and Rescue.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Published on July 31, 2012

{ 2 comments }

Kevin August 1, 2012 at 10:11 pm

I disagree having researched SPOT (and I own one) as a mountain rescuer I think the devices are a benefit but PLBs are more reliable for reasons best summarized here:

http://www.rockymountainrescue.org/about_PLBs.php

Mac July 31, 2012 at 2:06 pm

How about renaming the SPOT to ELT-SPOT? I feel that including “Emergency” in the name of the device might reduce the use of SPOT for trivial purposes. The aviation field requires small airplanes to be equipped with an ELT – emergency locator transmitter – that are triggered by crashes, or can be triggered manually if the crash fails to automatically turn it on.

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