For the first time in six years Teton County Search and Rescue is training new members.
By the time they graduate from probationary status in May, the 10 new recruits will have banked hundreds of training hours to respond on the worst day of people’s lives.
Before they receive assignments, before grabbing helmets and overnight bags, before they know if they’re dealing with swiftwater, cliff faces or avalanche terrain, there’s the call.
New recruit Anna DiSanto’s SAR ringtone is an alarm. It’s loud. Panic hits. She runs around for 30 seconds, as she puts it, like a chicken without its head.
Jen Reddy needed to change her ringtone out for something more mellow. A search and rescue team member since 2015, she likes to de-escalate the adrenaline.
And though their calls to the hangar might sound different, the team’s unity is unparalleled.
As a volunteer organization, Teton County Search and Rescue stands out in a transient mountain town for its high retention rate, high pressure and a level of professionalism.
The News&Guide spoke with team members from across the generations to tease out what makes this team click.
Dan Rogers knows about high-functioning teams.
He joined the military at 18 and served in U.S. Army infantry for almost nine years. When he moved to Idaho three and a half years ago he found Teton County Idaho’s search and rescue team.
But Rogers was still surprised when he added Wyoming’s Teton County counterpart to his rescue regime in 2021.
In the Army, Rogers said, you can wind up feeling like a kind of a cog in the wheel.
But he said the inclusivity and open-mindedness at Teton County Search and Rescue as well as the emphasis on both physical and mental health made him feel at home, like he had a voice.
It would be easy to rough up the freshmen brought on every three to five years. Instead, Reddy said, they’re welcomed as a much-needed reinvigoration.
“That injection of energy brings up everybody else on the team who might be like, ‘OK, I’ve been doing this for years,’” Reddy said.
That makes way for inspiration to improve, said new class member Lexie Drechsel, and a sense of admiration for people who’ve come before.
And the different backgrounds matter.
With different skills, everyone gets to feel like an equal-value contributor, says Anna DiSanto, also in the 2021 class. “That’s why we are able to function so well. Everybody brings something different to the table.”
Space to make mistakes
Lots of SAR volunteers have stories of calling on the team for themselves or for a friend.
In 2010 volunteer Jon Wiedie broke his neck after skiing into a tree in Rock Springs, outside of the resort.
Often on rescues, Wiedie said, people are embarrassed: “And I say, ‘I had to call the team. Our lives are being out doing what we love in dangerous situations. So don’t ever feel weird about calling.’”
Willingness to catch the falling is shared internally.
“When people aren’t afraid to make a mistake, they’re more relaxed, they’re calmer, they’re more optimistic, they feel supported,” DiSanto said. “We all ask each other for help. And we’ve all been able to help each other so there’s no shame.”
Nixing shame is a survival skill, said Ryan Combs, a SAR member since 2010.
“As we go out on missions we always feel comfortable expressing any concerns we have,” Combs said, “because at the end of the day if one of us doesn’t come home, that’s the worst-case scenario.”
And there’s more to a rescue than saving gravely injured people and coming home alive, Combs said.
“For instance,” he said, “in an avalanche fatality the focus is on the victim. But you may not always think ‘Gosh, that the person standing beside me, the person who’s been digging them out for the past hour, performing CPR, is traumatized because their friend has just died.’”
Psychological first-aid is now part of their training.
In 2018 Reddy helped the team learn techniques for helping victims whose injuries aren’t physical, so their tragedy isn’t lasting trauma.
And the check-ins go beyond the field.
The compounding stress of rescues don’t always create a tolerance for trauma, Dan Rogers said: “That tolerance can wear down over time or grow over time,” he said.
Members are encouraged to understand their limits, so if someone has been on four body recoveries recently, Rogers said, “we’re not like ‘Let’s send him on one because he’s the guy that can do this.’”
Since 2019 search and rescue has worked with the Teton Interagency Peer Support group to provide mental health resources.
A team of four, including Combs, are Teton TIPS point-people who coordinate systematic check-ins three days, then three weeks, and three months after an incident.
Resources like Teton TIPS help keep “the team in the green,” DiSanto said, “because Jackson’s a stressful place to make ends meet.”
Same page personas
Each class of volunteers is selected from among hundreds of uber-qualified applicants.
Everyone who applies wants to help. Most are gifted athletes. But with room for only 10 to 15 new people, who makes the cut?
Jon Wiedie says over the 18 years he’s been at search and rescue the kind of person has stayed “uniquely the same.”
After the prerequisites of having a relatively flexible schedule and knowing how to ski, the most-talked about criteria for new members is personality.
Instead of the traditional workplace where selection is based on skill, it’s first about vibes.
“If you’re a good team member,” Rogers said, “then you can learn the basic skills.”
There’s no room for ego, Wiedie said, which is dangerous in high-stakes scenarios.
“Can you be the guy who gets pizza or can you be the guy who gets on the helicopter? I think everyone has a really great sense of humor,” DiSanto said. “We laugh a lot together.”
And they really do seem to like each other. Everyone at some point said the team was their second family, helping them stay rooted in a quickly-changing community.
And with such tight bonds it’s easy to understand the attraction of being part of the crew.
You never want to be called out, Wiedie said, but you want to help and see the positive outcome. And no matter the ringtone, you can’t deny the adrenaline.
“You’re a little addicted to the callout.”