I gotta tell you, you never know what you are in for when you get a call-out for Teton County Search and Rescue. When one came for two injured hunters, deep in the Gros Ventre this Tuesday evening, I decided I would respond, even though it was the second time in a week I was going to have to cancel dinner plans with Julia due to a call-out. I’m thankful she is so understanding.
The call came at about 7:15pm and I rallied as quickly as I could out the door. After meeting up with some of my teammates, we began the long drive into the Gros Ventre. As we got further in, we saw some four-wheelers coming out and they commented how muddy the road was up ahead and after less than a mile we set up our staging area at the old Goosewing Guard Station. More of what happened began to unfold.
Turns out the two hunters had traveled a bit further into the backcountry than they had planned and on their return, they had rolled their four-wheeler down a steep embankment on the southwest side of Sunday Peak. (Not 100% sure on this location…I’m trying to verify.) The four-wheeler stopped rolling a mere 50′ from a 2-300′ cliff, which would have no doubt turned this mission in to a body recovery. Both of the hunters sustained injuries during the accident and they fired off three shots with their rifle, trying to summon help. After a second round of shooting and yelling, a group of hunters at an outfitter camp in the vicinity heard their cries and mobilized to see what was up. After finding the two injured hunters and unable to move the more injured one, two of them stayed at the scene and a third drove out the get help…Teton County Search and Rescue.
A sheriff’s deputy was already at the staging area when we arrived, along with a GTNP law enforcement ranger, who had already been shuttled in by the reporting party (RP). A quick as we could, we loaded up the 4 four-wheelers we have with some of the supplies we though we would need, litters, backboards, high angle equipment, medical supplies, as well as all of our own PPE (personal protective equipment), and began the long, muddy ride deeper into the range. We could only send in 6 people with our limited number of four-wheelers available to us, and they include two medical personnel to deal with the injuries, so two of the rigs were riding double.
The four-wheeling was pretty intense, but I think the darkness helped to hide the danger. The trail ran up and down some pretty steep slopes, as well as followed some very sharp ridge lines that had steep exposure on both sides. In spots, if you came off the trail just a foot or two, you were done for…really! It was probably close to 11 o’clock by the time we arrived at the accident sight and we quickly began to do our job.
I helped build and manage the main and belay line rope systems we would need to safely haul the victim up from the embankment, while the medical team managed the more injured patient down below. Luckily they are qualified to administer pain killers like Morphine to aid in making the patient more comfortable. The extraction operation went smooth and by about midnight we had the injured hunter at the top of the ridge. That was the easy part and we still had to deal with getting him out to civilization.
Sometimes we have a helicopter which can land at night with the use of night-vision goggles available to us from Idaho Falls, but the weather was deteriorating quickly so they weren’t able to fly. We tried just riding the victim out on a four-wheeler, like a regular passenger, but his pain was just too severe. Our only choice was to rely on our wheeled litter (like a wheel-barrow with handles on both sides) to negotiate him out over the rugged terrain. Unfortunately it was back at the staging area, so four of us road out to retrieve it and hopefully muster up some more bodies to help. The forecast for the next day (and the next) was pretty bad and it didn’t look like the helicopter would be able to help us if we chose to hunker down and wait until daylight. It was beginning to look like a very long rescue.
We arrived back at the staging area to some warm drinks and food, and our teammates unloaded and reloaded the four-wheelers as we refueled our bodies. As we started back in for the second time, it began to snow…hard. Visibility was extremely difficult with the lights from the four-wheelers and at times you could only see about 10′ ahead. The severity of the terrain multiplied with the snowfall, as well as the urgency to get the victim out…now! It sounded like our teammates who stayed with the victim thought the same and we heard on the radios they had begun transport of the victim. We wondered how? It was hard to see the trail as the snow quickly accumulated, but we managed our why back to the scene without incident. We didn’t see our teammates when we got there and hadn’t seen them on the way in. We began to worry.
After multiple tries on the radio from a few locations to Incident Command (IC), we learned that the team had made a wrong turn at one of the junctions marked with cylumes we had placed…quickly being buried by the snow. We both backtracked and met at the junction. We saw the litter strapped to the back of the four-wheeler, with it sticking lengthwise out the back, a driver, and the two medics riding on the front. Turns out they had to wreck part of the four-wheeler to rig it together, but the conditions warranted extreme measures. It was white knuckle riding back to the staging area, and at times I could only see by peering from behind the passenger I had, also ridding on the front.
After fording the Gros Ventre River for the fourth time, we arrived at our advanced staging area around 5. I was glad to be down and out of the mountains (and the weather), but we still had a couple miles to ride back to IC. This is when my four-wheeler ran out of gas. A quick tow strap fixed the immediate problem, but I ate and got plastered with mud the rest of the way back, adding to how bad I wanted to get this thing over with. I learned that while law enforcement was checking the hunter’s weapons, in order to transport him back to Jackson, they found a bunch of methamphetamine and paraphernalia. He was welcomed back to civilization with handcuffs and a felony charge.
Hunting season is one of the busiest times of year for us on TCSAR and I’ll be glad when it is over…which will also mean the beginning of ski season. And who isn’t psyched about that?