Yellowstone Park Rangers David Olson and Sara Robinson and Deputy Fire Chief Mike Schell rig rope rescue systems above Yellowstone River during a training exercise. (Phil Strehle)

Last May, a 71-year-old man trying to photograph a sign at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River stumbled backwards, fell over a stone barrier and dropped into the canyon behind him. Instead of plunging to his death, he miraculously stopped himself by bracing his body and feet on the sides of a small crevice. There, he held on and awaited rescue.

Members of Yellowstone’s technical ropes rescue team eventually reached the man, rigged a pulley system and hoisted him to safety.

These types of extractions are more commonly associated with Grand Teton and other parks which attract climbers to steep terrain. But Yellowstone, despite being more known for geysers than technical ascents, has seen rising need for such rescues as visitation increases. That’s why Phil Strehle, a park ranger and member of Yellowstone’s search and rescue team, has for years requested funding to bring technical rope rescue training to the park.

This summer it will happen. The Yellowstone Park Foundation recently announced a $12,500 grant for park staff training.

Park Rangers Phil Strehle, Klint Powell and Sara Robinson put their technical rope rescue skills to the test in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Phil Strehle)
Park Rangers Phil Strehle, Klint Powell and Sara Robinson put their technical rope rescue skills to the test in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Phil Strehle)

They’ve hired Rigging for Rescue, a nationally recognized technical rescue training company used by other parks. Usually training takes place where the techniques are in higher demand. Having it come to Yellowstone allows more rangers to take the intensive seven-day course, and offers them a chance to practice on the topography where they’ll actually use the skills, Strehle said.

Yellowstone doesn’t have a dedicated search and rescue division like Grand Teton National Park with its Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers. Search and rescue “is just a collateral duty added to whatever else everyone is doing in the summer,” Strehle said.

Search and rescue members learn specialized skills for different scenarios, like swift-water, or cave rescues. In Yellowstone the technical ropes rescue team is called when an incident involves steep terrain. They’ve used complex systems of ropes and pulleys to reach and rescue victims in about 14 technical rope rescues since 2010, Strehle said.

Many calls involve visitors who’ve found themselves in tight spots after falling or stepping from viewing platforms. While the park does have some big drop-offs, most incidents don’t involve long falls. People ending up in places that are simply inaccessible without the aid of the ropes is more the norm. Rangers are also often called to accidents where a car has gone off the side of the road. The vehicle might be only 20 feet from the pavement, but in terrain that requires technical rope rigging to reach it.

“The need for such skills has always been around,” Strehle said. But techniques have evolved and rangers are using the skills more often.

Last year there were 61 search and rescue incidents in the park. Most were minor, like a twisted ankle. Five of those 61, though, were classified as technical rescues involving rope rigging, Strehle said.

In two separate incidents, rangers used rope systems to lift hikers out of steep ravines following river-rock slip and fall injuries that were serious enough to keep the victims from climbing out unaided.

Last winter two people lost the trail while hiking in the snow and found themselves perched on a cliff edge, unable to move. They had cell coverage and called for help. They were uninjured, but to move them to safety rangers had to use ropes, Strehle said.

The techniques are also used for recovery operations. Following the death of two ice climbers in 2010, rangers recovered their remains 300 feet below a canyon rim.

The rope training, expected to take place this July, will teach about 10 rangers the latest and most efficient techniques. It also will give them a chance to practice skills they don’t regularly use. These types of skills can’t be learned just by reading a manual, Strehle said. They have to be practiced and honed.

The grant from the Yellowstone Park Foundation covers the entire cost of the training, allowing the park to invest funds planned for part of the fee into new rescue equipment.

Park Rangers Gabe Gassman (bottom) and Sarah Strehle simulate a litter hoist in Lewis River Canyon. (Phil Strehle)
Park Rangers Gabe Gassman (bottom) and Sarah Strehle simulate a litter hoist in Lewis River Canyon. (Phil Strehle)

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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