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Newest DPS helicopter expected to save more hikers in trouble

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A volunteer helping to keep hikers safe on Provo's Mount Timpanogos tumbled down 100 yards of rocky ice, then dropped 30 feet into a cavern, breaking both legs in the fall Saturday afternoon.

He stayed there until sunrise, when a state helicopter capable of hoisting fallen hikers lifted the 25-year-old from Heber City and took him to Utah Valley Hospital in Provo.

Department of Public Safety managers and the crew who retrieved him from the icy mountainside said Monday that the rescue would have been much slower and more dangerous in the past. The difference: a $4.2 million state aircraft in its first full season that can lower a responder on a 167-foot cable to find people in danger, then heave them back up.

It can fly higher than medical helicopters in Utah and takes the place of search teams trudging up and down perilous slopes, officers said at a news conference at the Department of Public Safety hangar near Salt Lake City International Airport.

"It's a sigh of relief when we know they're on their way," Unified Police Department spokesman Brian Lohrke said of the new helicopter. The department previously flew people to safety after picking them up on the ground, but could not hoist them until last fall.

And it's getting good use. The department said it has worked with counties to coordinate 34 rescues by air in the six weeks since Memorial Day. It believes 2017 is on track to be its busiest year ever for aerial rescues as more people explore Utah's backcountry and seek to escape the muggy Salt Lake Valley.

The department averages around 100 rescues a year, recording 121 last year and a recent high of 125 in 2014, according to figures provided by the department. Luke Bowman, DPS chief pilot, estimates the cost of the flights averages out to about $3,000 apiece.

It takes about 20 minutes to lower the cable once local law officers call in the state helicopter, Bowman said. A team of three typically responds, sometimes working with rescuers on the ground to bring lost or injured hikers and climbers to safety.

"A lot of the calls we get to are narrow canyons, steep hillsides," said Landon Middaugh, the tactical flight officer who retrieved the volunteer who lost his footing at Timpanogos Saturday. "We're able to use the hoist to our advantage."

The department is hopeful it could win approval from the Legislature to buy a second hoist helicopter that flies across Utah at the request of local police agencies.

Its round-the-clock staff is lean, with two full-time pilots and one part-time pilot, plus four crew members capable of finding people in danger and lifting them to safety.

At the news conference Monday, they joined officers from Utah and Salt Lake counties to urge caution for anyone heading on trails, especially the 14-mile trek to the top of Timpanogos.

Several people hoping to take in sunsets or sunrise from the top don't realize that a water bottle and flimsy shoes won't cut it, said Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Wally Perschon, especially with snowpack still intact near the summit in July.

"It's very dangerous" this year, Perschon said, which is leading to more volunteers mapping the area to make sure it's safe for hikers and give them advice on conditions and where to go.

On Friday, the volunteer hiked from Aspen Grove and was staying overnight to help map safe trails when he slipped and vaulted over a fellow Timpanogos Emergency Response Team member.

In the wake of the injury, the Utah County Sheriff's Department is tweaking its protocol for generally untrained TERT volunteers, which are distinct from its search-and-rescue crews, Perschon said.

"We're still assessing what happened there," Perschon said. It's the first major injury for a team member in the last 30 years, he added.

His department will do more aerial surveys instead and seek to make sure volunteers have the right gear, Perschon said, but he noted his agency doesn't have total oversight over the unpaid crews.

The volunteer, whose name has not been released, was more fortunate than a 62-year-old hiker from Alabam who got lost in Kane County's Spooky Gulch slot canyon in June. Lane Friedman was reported missing at 7 p.m. by his family, and a Department of Public Safety helicopter was sent to find him the next morning in daylight. He had died by the time his body was found about 1 p.m.

Public safety officials are hoping to prevent future deaths of people injured or lost at night, when a helicopter's effectiveness is limited. Starting in August, the department is planning to begin training its crews on using the cable in the dark.

"We're going to be able to do it," Middaugh said.


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