Spring brings busy days for Grand County Search and Rescue team in Utah
According to the advertising slogan, Moab, Utah, is “Where Adventure Begins.”
Few of the area’s 1 million yearly visitors or many of the town’s 5,000 residents would dispute that.
Grand County’s almost 3,800 square miles of high desert, rimmed with breathtaking red-stone ridges, canyon bottoms severed by the ample Colorado River and anchored by two sweeping national parks, are an irresistible playground for outdoor lovers.
Rock climbers long to scurry up precipitous rock faces, base jumpers can’t wait to hurl themselves off perfectly good cliffs and river rats yearn to baptize their boats in the chilly currents.
With so much expanse to explore by jeep, bicycle, raft, all-terrain vehicle or on foot, the area inevitably is the place where dozens of adventures are shortened or, sadly, end.
That’s where the nearly 30 members of the Grand County’s Search and Rescue team come in.
“The first of the year you just sit back and say ‘what are we going to have this year, how many deaths are we going to have?’ ” Grand County Chief Deputy Sheriff Curt Brewer said. “You think, ‘is it going to be base jumpers, mountain bikers, rafting accidents, plane crashes?’ You just don’t know. I guess you just kind of prepare for them all.”
Search and rescue members practice all year to respond to a variety of calls, but the spring season tends to be the busiest. Team members can all but forget about making weekend plans as calls for help are most likely to come during the evening and on the weekend — Saturdays, Fridays and Sundays, in that order.
“It’s the law of averages,” said George “Bego” Gerhart, acting commander of the county’s search operations. “When the skiing gets bad, here they come. It’s like they’re here the first day it warms up.”
Just last year, search and rescue members, along with other agencies, handled five drownings. In one case, team members beat the bushes for 30 miles downstream on the Colorado River seeking a man whose canoe capsized. His body was not found, but in the other drownings, the bodies were recovered from the river.
Also last year, the team responded when 10 people, all from Cedar City, Utah, died in a fiery twin-engine plane crash that occurred shortly after takeoff at an airfield near Moab.
Search and rescue workers pluck base jumpers off dizzying ledges every year. They respond when riders of ATVs and motorcycles roll over and when canyoneers find themselves in sticky situations. Calls come in from weary hikers on trails after dark, too tired and too thirsty to make it back. Broken ankles and legs are common.
The Moab-based group handles about 100 calls a year, the most of any search and rescue agency in Utah, members say.
By comparison, the various arms of Mesa County’s volunteer search and rescue groups responded to 61 calls in 2008 and 86 in 2009.
“People who do search and rescue are outdoors people,” Gerhart said. “If someone says, ‘Let’s go outdoors,’ the reason doesn’t matter. Anybody’s who has died is dead and, if they’re injured, they’re depending on you.”
That’s not to say the work doesn’t have its set of challenges, Gerhart said. During the busier seasons, search and rescue workers can expect to put in long hours, an average of two to four hours per incident. Many rely on employers who allow them job flexibility.
Gerhart, who has been with the agency for 13 years, said the “drop everything” aspect of search and rescue is hard on family life. A pager is just as likely to go off at 2 a.m. as it is on Thanksgiving Day.
“When I was married with two small children, Mama didn’t like me getting up from the dinner table,” Gerhart said.
Unlike the majority of volunteer search and rescue crews, Grand County search and rescue recently converted to a pay system for its rescue operations. Workers are paid on a hourly basis per mission. County officials determined the area’s tax base could not absorb all the costs of its relatively large numbers of missions.
Just for searchers to get out the door, those being rescued can expect to be billed $1,275. To be carried out of somewhere by litter or a rescue basket with a wheel, for example, will cost an additional $800.
Other charges apply for the various pieces of equipment needed for rescue, which can be one or any number of ATVs, jet skis, rafts, ropes, trucks and snowmobiles. A command center or trailer can be used as a base for dispatchers during lengthy operations.
Families of the deceased, however, are not billed for the recovery of bodies.
Having to pay to be rescued is a controversial topic among search and rescue agencies, because sometimes people delay calling for help because they are trying to avoid a charge.
“Then they realize they have to call or die,” Gerhart said.
Regardless, workers say money is not a motivating factor and they preferred doing the work as volunteers.
Nancy May has been with search and rescue for 13 years, getting on board to train her Australian cattle dog, Shalla, as a search dog.
One of May’s most memorable recoveries came a few years ago while working with a group Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado. Searchers were combing rural, northern Mesa County for a hunter from Washington.
The hunter died after he was hit by lightning. Searchers eventually located the hunter’s body in the crook of a tree, a place many had walked right past.
“Our job is not to control what the person did; it’s to end the situation and fix it,” May said. “If we get in there and fix it, we’ve done our job.”
People who have never had a loved one who disappeared and was presumed dead in the outdoors may underestimate the value of closure for families, May said.
Finding that deceased hunter was a relief for the family and helped them move on, May said.
Sometimes searchers are dispatched to seek local residents. That isn’t all too uncommon in the small community with a large percentage of outdoor enthusiasts.
Thanks to the help of a nosy neighbor and a dog, searchers were able to find Moab resident Danelle Ballengee in the backcountry a couple years ago.
The endurance runner spent two nights in freezing temperatures after slipping off a ledge during a run. She sustained massive internal bleeding and a number of broken bones, including a shattered pelvis.
The searchers who found her stabilized her the best they could and called a helicopter.
“She would have been dead before the next sunrise,” Gerhart said. “We spend a lot of time helping people. Now and then we get to save a life.”