As midsummer draws hordes of backpackers to the Wind River Range, a string of four helicopter rescues made for an unusually busy week in Sublette County.
Of the 15 operations Tip Top Search and Rescue has performed so far in 2019, nearly a third came in a sudden burst over the past week, straining the volunteer organization. Officials attribute the inundation to overall high visitor numbers, especially as a late-arriving summer may be funneling vacationers into the same short snow-free window of opportunity.
“There’s just a lot of people out in the wilderness,” said Rob Hoelscher, Pinedale district ranger for the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Search and Rescue Coordinator Kenna Tanner said that more than the sheer number of calls, she was struck by how many have been due to altitude sickness. In most cases, she said, the people have been visitors from low-lying states and presumably didn’t give their bodies time to adjust to the elevation.
Virtually the entire range stands above 8,000 feet, the point at which most unacclimated people start to feel symptoms.
“If you haven’t done some preparation to avoid high-altitude issues,” Tanner said, “it can sneak up on you pretty quick.”
She urged wilderness recreationists to be sure they are ready, mentally and physically, for a trip in the Winds. And while there, she said, it’s essential to stay hydrated and to recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Beyond this one-week outbreak of rescues, Tanner said the proliferation in recent years of satellite phones and personal locator beacons has been a mixed blessing.
These devices “have been incredibly helpful in getting help when it’s direly needed,” she said, but may also lead people to act recklessly in the backcountry or spend less time preparing for emergencies.
“They play hard,” she said, “and unfortunately some of them have to get some help.”
When she started at Tip Top Search and Rescue in the mid-1990s, Tanner said, they performed a rescue or two a year. By 2018, that number had risen to 34. Though much of that growth is surely due to the surge in outdoor recreation, she guessed it also has plenty to do with the newfound ease of calling for help.
“We have seen an increase in the assumption that they will immediately be rescued just because they push a button,” she said. “A hundred years ago there was no means of calling for help, and you had to be self-sufficient. Today, that’s not always the case.”
For a group of volunteers, all of whom have jobs and families and other obligations, such frequent missions prove difficult, Tanner said. While volunteers are always ready and willing to come to the rescue, she said she hopes callers don’t take the decision lightly.
“You hope that the people hitting the big red button really are in dire need of help,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to not call us, but understand that we are putting our lives at risk to ensure their safe return.”
Teton County Search and Rescue has also seen a spike in rescues, with four in the past week or so.
Three of those came in the form of ATV misadventures. In the most recent incident, on Friday, Donna Joedicke, of West Virginia, tumbled down a steep embankment near Lower Slide Lake after her ATV went off of the Gros Ventre Road. She suffered only minor injuries in the accident.