Backcountry rescues rise as more people seek outdoor recreation

About 30 volunteers gathered a recent weekend at a snowy highway in western Idaho. They were there for a training exercise, and the fictional scenario for the day involved four snowshoers who did not return when scheduled.

“We have four late subjects. We don’t know exactly how long they’ve been overdue, but we’ll find out from our law enforcement representative,” said Scotty Perkins, public information officer and volunteer with the Search and Disclosure Unit. Idaho Mountain Rescue.

So the volunteers split into teams, checked their avalanche beacons, and skied or snowshoeed in the woods.

Within hours, groups began locating missing snowshoers. Over the radio, one of the crews called, “We are on the scene with a patient, an adult male, 25-year-old Hunter. The main complaint is that he is tired.

Some snowshoers were fine, but others in this made-up situation were not. As more calls came in over the radio, Perkins recognized key phrases.

“As part of our mission, we have code words associated with encountering a deceased subject, and that’s what we just heard,” he said.

The Idaho rescue group received 39 calls for help last year, up from 29 the year before. Part of the increase is due to the weather: cold snaps, but also hot summer days. A group of mountain bikers needed help when the temperatures rose faster and higher than they expected.

“It’s happened to a lot of us, and one of the members of this four-person mountain bike team … just got into a heat emergency,” Perkins said.

Not all rescue teams in the region have received more calls in the last 12 months. The Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council in New Mexico said it received fewer calls, possibly because local responders took more themselves.

But many others have seen increases, partly due to a poor avalanche season earlier this year. That’s according to the Mountain Rescue Association, which works with volunteer teams across the country.

Association president and volunteer Doug McCall said more and more people are also seeking training to help with rescues.

“We have seen a huge increase in the number of people enrolling in our education base campeither because they were looking for training online or because they were looking to train before going to the backcountry,” he said.

Volunteers from rescue groups often bring their own equipment for emergency calls and training. Other costs for things like websites, emergency equipment, and vehicles tend to be covered through donations, community fundraisers, and grants.

Volunteers from the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit participate in a training exercise. (Madelyn Beck/Mountain West News)

Teton County Search and Rescue in Wyoming received more than 100 calls in 2021, up from 80 the previous year. But volunteer Cody Lockhart said that number doesn’t reflect how many people are coming out.

“There are a lot more people using the backcountry, and that doesn’t translate proportionally to more rescues,” he said.

Lockhart said that may be because newbies don’t often take as many risks, cell service is better than ever, and so many people are there that it’s easier to find help.

But mental health has become a major issue.

“That was defining for us this summer as being part of these big rescues or searches for discouraged or struggling people,” Lockhart said.

All of this means volunteers need to be trained in a variety of things they may encounter as more and more people explore the wilderness.

Chris Brookman, an eight-year-old volunteer with the Idaho Search and Rescue group, led the training on this snowy road. He stressed the importance of education.

“We’re going out and improving our team, and we’re better equipped to go out and prepare people to help people, and we all love doing that. We also like to play in the snow,” he said.

After the training, some of the volunteers plan to go off-piste skiing themselves.