SALT LAKE CITY — Summer is anticipated to bring over 11 million visitors to Utah state parks and trails, and with that comes risk of heat exhaustion, dehydration, fatigue, injury, and death.
What stands in the way of disaster on the trail? Search and rescue: groups of volunteers trained in a variety of life-saving skills, assembled when calls go out for rescue over Utah's millions of acres of public and state land.
Volunteers are unpaid, and yet they complete extensive training, including for rescues in swift-water, open water, diving and recovery, ice, caves and avalanches, as well as for K-9 work, man-tracking, mass casualty events, down aircraft, medical response and evacuations. They see injury, death, and abandonment on a regular basis. Some work hundreds of hours a year with no expectation of payment.
There's a sense of urgency that you have to fight because you want to be thorough, which isn't necessarily going fast. You have to put your blinders on and focus on your mission so you can have whatever outcome to bring back to the family.
– Marci Shaver-Adams,Utah County SAR volunteer
As more people trek through Utah's open parks, canyons, and wilderness this summer, sheriffs worry about the potential strain on manpower and resources.
"The biggest support we could use is resources, equipment, money and manpower," said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. "Our volunteers are getting burned out. Our guys are working five or six days a week and get one day off. If he's in Grand Staircase-Escalante, and he gets that call that he's going down into that miserable heat to go save someone's life, he goes, but it burns him out."
Pollock's team of rescuers isn't alone. Volunteers are expected to attend trainings in grueling heat and be on call to scour hundreds of acres at the drop of a hat. They recall team members having to take weeks or months off from volunteering to cope with the physical and emotional toll that rescuing takes.
"If we're looking for children, that's always really tough, especially for people who have children of the same age," said Marci Shaver-Adams, a volunteer with Utah County SAR. "You want to go fast, but going fast is not always the right thing to do. There's a sense of urgency that you have to fight because you want to be thorough, which isn't necessarily going fast. You have to put your blinders on and focus on your mission so you can have whatever outcome to bring back to the family."
It's even worse when people don't have a working cell phone to accurately pinpoint their location.
"Not being able to get to you via cell phone can make a rescue operation take hours or, in some cases, days," said Unified Police Sgt. Melody Cutler. "We always tell people to have a full cell phone battery before you go, and to not completely deplete it while taking photos."
One way to help rescuers avoid burnout has been collaboration. Weber and Davis County assist each other when one county has too few volunteers to help a given situation. Weber County also doesn't ask its volunteers to be generalists, and to mainly help in situations where they have expertise.
"If you rock at rock climbing, we want you to be an awesome rock climber and not a diver," said Lt. Mark Horton, who works in Weber County Search and Rescue. "It's good for not every member going out every time."
Commissioners in Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties are also noticing more people coming to the parks without proper preparation or experience as they handle some of the country's most difficult hikes and trails. This is leading to an increase in search and rescue missions across counties. Unified Police Sgt. Melody Cutler saw 65 search and rescues in Salt Lake County in 2019, 73 in 2020, and already 32 halfway through 2021. The team is on track to rescue even more than previous years. At one point on July 4, the county received four simultaneous calls for search and rescue.
Lt. Mark Horton says Weber County typically gets about one call for rescue a week, with an uptick in numbers happening in the last two years, when more people abandoned their overseas vacations for campers and backpacks.
Different areas have different incidences of searches and rescues. Counties like Salt Lake and Utah typically see more rescues in the summer, when more people recreate. Garfield reports that many of their numbers come from late fall and early spring hikes, when fewer people are on the trail to assist someone who's showing signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion.
Over the summer, Garfield County SAR usually performs about 50 rescues, but those searches can be extensive, with upwards of 3 million acres of land in Bryce Canyon and a million acres at Grand Staircase Escalante. Perkins says that 80-100 search and rescue volunteers are scattered throughout the county on any given day.
"When the trailheads are full of people, and you get turned around, you can ask for directions and beg a bottle of water," said Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins. "Believe it or not, when we get really, really busy, our search and rescues go down."
In Zion National Park, an estimated 110 search and rescue operations happen each year. While some cost about $750 for a quick rescue, others can cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially when helicopters become involved.
The most common search and rescues are called for lower extremity injuries, like a broken ankle or a torn ligament in a knee. According to Zion chief ranger Daniel Fagergren, these can occur five to six times a week during the summer, as more visitors flood the park and walk in the Narrows. Fagergren describes the slippery rocks there as being like "wet bowling balls."
Another key reason for searches and rescues is a hiker being insufficiently informed about a hike. Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Justin Gordon acknowledges that magazines offering easy hikes in the state may be underscoring certain areas.
"One of the hikes they always put in there is Stewart Falls, marking it as 'very easy,'" Gordon said. "But people with no hiking experience go out there, and that becomes our busiest spot, with twisted ankles and fatigue everywhere. The media is a huge help, but a huge hindrance."
Strain on resources
Many search and rescue teams work with locally-supplied equipment and, in extenuating circumstances, will borrow state resources like underwater drones and helicopters.
Volunteers had to spend several hours mapping out the drowning that occurred at Pineview Reservoir on June 20, where a 37-year-old father went under when he attempted to swim out to retrieve his son who had floated out into the water while using a flotation device. Another drowning at Spring Lake took hours due to low visibility in the water, with divers searching through the lake by hand before reaching out the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation for a remotely operated underwater vehicle.
Most counties need new equipment as even low-cost equipment experiences wear and tear. Each county has different ways of allocating funds, but most send reports to Utah's SAR Committee to cover only a portion of their costs.
The rest can come through donations, county budgets, and sometimes directly billing those rescued. The Utah Search and Rescue Assistance card is a way for recreationists to give back to SAR by paying an annual fee to the state's fund. The cardholder is then never charged for a search and rescue, which can be up to $2,000 outside of medical and EMT payments.
"We're always looking for donations to buy better equipment for the team — harnesses, new spikes for shoes," Gordon said. "We'd rather see some of those expenses come from donations to search and rescue rather than to the sheriff's office."
Another obstacle to search and rescue teams is dwindling numbers of volunteers. Though counties like Weber are seeing an uptick in volunteers this summer, the SAR team in Garfield County has lost about 20 of its members since 2017, according to Perkins.
Volunteering for search and rescue requires paying for your own training, car, gas and often equipment. It requires a person to have discretionary cash and a very flexible job that will let them go at a moment's notice — something that a newer generation often doesn't have. Blake Jorgensen, who has volunteered with Utah County SAR for the past two and a half years, estimates he's spent around $12,000 for equipment, trainings and EMT certifications.
"We're not at a point where we can't function, but there's a decline in our county, and a decline in neighboring counties," Perkins said. "The younger generation does not volunteer like the older generation, period."
Park officials and sheriffs have outlined a list of preparations that all recreators should make before heading out on the trail or into the wilderness.
- Schedule your hike for early morning or early evening if the weather is hot. If you go out in the middle of the day, seek shelter often and take breaks.
- Pack plenty of liquids, not just water. Electrolyte loss can lead to a sharp decline of fluids in the body. Experts advise a gallon of liquids per hiker. The most common factor that contributes to people needing help is fatigue or physical ailment.
- Pre-plan your gear. If you're climbing up a mountain, be prepared for it to get colder at the top, and pack additional clothes if needed. Pack food if the hike will take more than an hour.
- Wear appropriate clothing and shoes — no flip-flops (a common footwear seen by volunteers.)
- When you're hiking and you get to a spot that looks more risky than what you thought, turn around and go back.
- Go in groups, and go with someone who's done it before. This helps manage expectations for the hike and in locating anomalous areas that may not look unsafe, but might be for an unseasoned traveler.
- Be flexible. If you planned a day to go on a hike somewhere, and the weather's not great, go a shorter distance, or go another day. Even though the West is in a historic drought, be extremely cautious when rain falls.
- Flash floods can happen quickly (as two hikers in a slot canyon in Escalante found out), and they can be deadly. If you notice rain, get to high ground and get back to civilization. Watch the weather and be safe.