A snowbound couple were rescued from a fire tower in Dinosaur National Monument last weekend in an incident that highlights some of the challenges faced by the folks who do search and rescue work.
On Saturday, April 25, 2009, a couple failed to return from an outing to Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, which adjoins Dinosaur National Monument on the north. They were reported overdue to authorities in Moffat County (Colorado), and and an active search was started on Sunday morning.
Here's a summary of the incident from a park report:
Dave McGhee, the NPS ranger assigned to Lodore, was contacted around 7:30 a.m. [Sunday] and asked to help with the search. McGhee realized that he’d spoken to the couple at Lodore on Saturday at about 1:30 p.m., when they’d asked him about fishing opportunities. This information led searchers to concentrate on river access points. The weather was cold and windy, with wet, heavy snow making road access very difficult.
At about 11 a.m., a dispatcher in Craig received a partial cell phone call and was able to narrow the search to an area on the shoulder of Zenobia Peak, the highest point in the park [at over 9,000 feet].
Ah, it sounds like a lucky break for the search team. At least a very large search area has been narrowed down a bit. Well, not so fast...
A later 911 call from the couple confirmed that they had gotten their truck stuck in deep snow on Zenobia, and that they’d then abandoned the truck and were en route cross-country with their two dogs towards a visible cabin ... some distance above them atop the peak.
High on the list of undesirable situations for searchers is a lost person who won't stay put to be found, especially in bad weather. Unfortunately, some folks are just determined ...
The dispatcher advised them to return to their vehicle and not climb further up the mountain, but the pair elected to continue traveling cross-country towards the unoccupied fire tower. Their vehicle was located at about 3 p.m., and searchers began tracking the couple through snow up to waist deep in near white-out conditions. Meanwhile, the couple reached the fire tower, broke in, started the propane, cooked dinner, and took a nap.
A full-sized four-wheel-drive NPS truck was unable to access the tower due to snow, but Moffat County searchers eventually reached it at about 5 p.m. on ATVs and evacuated the couple and their dogs. They were transferred to the NPS vehicle, transported down the mountain, and treated for mild hypothermia by Maybell Ambulance.
I'll try not to be too hard on this couple, whose names I've omitted from this story, but this situation does provide some insight into why the folks who do search and rescue tend to be prematurely gray.
After reading this report, I spoke by phone with Corporal Todd Wheeler, the Search and Rescue Coordinator for the Moffat County Sheriff's Department. He was able to provide a few more details, while being very gracious in his comments about the couple.
The search involved nine volunteers from Moffat County SAR, two deputies, and a NPS ranger. A quick response was possible because members of the county's SAR team were already in the remote area on an overnight training exercise. Moffat County covers a big chunk of terrain, and the area involved is a long way from town.
There are actually two fire towers visible from the location where the couple's vehicle became stuck, and those structures are about 35 miles apart as the crow flies. The stranded individuals were not familiar enough with the area to identify which of the two "cabins" was their intended destination, and once they announced their plans to head for a tower rather than return to their truck, there was no further cell phone contact with the couple.
That left searchers with two possible destinations, with a lot of rugged country in between—and uncertainty about whether the pair had managed to reach the cabin at all.
Due to the open terrain, searchers encountered deep snow interspersed with areas of bare ground and rock, making tracking more difficult. The couple also bypassed several other cabins during their 3½ mile uphill trek to the fire tower.
The pair does get credit for at least one point: someone "back home" was aware of their trip, and had at least a vague description of their destination, so authorities were notified and began a search sooner rather than later.
The incident also illustrates the pluses of cell phone communication, since the call helped narrow the search area. However, the fact that only a "partial call" was received is a reminder that reliable cell service can't be counted on everywhere—as clearly noted on the website for the park and for the wildlife refuge that was the original destination for the trip.
Due to the remote nature of the Refuge, visitors are encouraged to bring extra supplies including water, food, and fuel in case of emergency. Cell phone coverage is sporadic at best in this area and should not be counted on in times of emergency.
Corporal Wheeler was tactful in his comments during our phone conversation, but he pointed out that a moving target always makes searcher's jobs much more difficult, and this situation would have been resolved sooner if this couple had followed the dispatcher's advice and remained in their vehicle. The added time, distance and elevation required to reach the fire tower in difficult terrain and bad weather increased the risks for both the victims and the searchers.
The good news? There was a successful outcome, thanks to some dedicated rescue personnel—and no small measure of good fortune for the couple involved.