Anatomy Of A Search And Rescue Operation

TWENTY MEMBERS OF Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol (MSSP) with headlamps were skiing in pairs down the southwest side of the mountain close to midnight on Saturday, December 11. It was snowing and windy. They were climbing over logs and limbs while blowing their whistles and yelling out for a lost skier who had been missing for over 12 hours.

The search officially started shortly after 1:30 pm, when the MSSP received word that a 66-year-old skier named Wayne Schuh was lost outside the ski boundary on the south side of the mountain. Actually, he had become lost not long after 10:00AM but thought he could find his way. Instead of calling 911, he called a friend, who then notified mountain management three hours later.

Keith Schultz, MSSP Search and Rescue Leader and Incident Command Officer (ICO) for this search, says the skier reported himself as working his way towards the switchback on State Route 206. As ICO, Schultz coordinated search logistics—a complex process managing people and specific search locations, shuttle transportation for patrollers, post-sweep debriefs and rescue equipment.

After conducting an initial hasty search of the resort facilities, including the bar and restaurant, and verifying Wayne’s vehicle was still in the parking lot, a mountain manager on a snowmobile was sent out to search for tracks in the missing skier’s reported location. Then three patrollers on skis, equipped with rescue packs, and two more patrollers on snowshoes searched to see where those tracks led. A state park ranger on a MSSP Nordic snowmobile also searched a perimeter loop. Ultimately, those tracks were determined not be from an alpine skier. Two hours later, with no obvious evidence that anyone had exited this section of the mountain, the search area was now confined.

Meanwhile, Schultz had contacted the Department of Emergency Management (DEM). “Our rule of thumb is that if someone is lost outside the ski area—while ‘side-country’ skiing, not really backcountry since it’s by the resort—that’s when we get DEM involved. For two reasons: we get more resources, and we get a mission number so that we have coverage if volunteers get hurt or break equipment,” he says.

It was now dark and snowing. After the call to DEM, the resources came in the form of county deputies and volunteer members of Inland Northwest Search and Research (INSAR) and the Winter Knights Search and Rescue, a snowmobile club. A county sheriff’s helicopter or one from Fairchild Air Force Base would be on standby, but weather conditions prevented it from being used that night.

INSAR volunteers on snowshoes searched drainage areas with terrain too difficult to ski, and Winter Knight volunteers and resort employees spent hours searching on snowmobiles.

Off-duty patrollers were called to assist. The MSSP Christmas party that was supposed to be that evening essentially turned into a massive search team with catered food.

With no radio coverage on the south and southwest sides of the mountain, resort General Manager Brad McQuarrie was the relay person at the top of chair two—acting as a “repeater” for patrollers on a different channel.

With DEM involved, the cell tower information could be reviewed. But only one tower was pinged by the lost skier’s cell phone, indicating that he was about 19 miles away from it. “So we got a map to locate the tower, and it was way up north,” says Schultz. “We verified the tower with 911, plotted it on a map, and found the circumference. But the circle intersected on a different side of the mountain than we were searching.”

This was key new information. It could be possible that Wayne was far enough west that he was actually in a different drainage area than he had reported to his friend, and this would lead him away from the mountain.

“It was now snowing like crazy, so any tracks that were made at 10:00 in the morning were long gone,” says Schultz.

Wayne’s family told MSSP that he is a hardy man and experienced hunter. “Since he is winter savvy, we thought he might hunker down and wait. Maybe he’d have his skis out as a sign, but we could still ski right past him,” says Schultz.

In the dark forest with headlamps, patrollers were yelling and blowing whistles in the wind. Anyone on the other side of the trees would have difficulty hearing them. “We were really worried about the situation. Most lost skiers are found within a few hours,” says Schultz. “It’s very physically draining but also emotionally draining when you don’t find any sign of that person. You know he’s out there and it’s not good. And you know if you were lost, you’d want to get found. The last thing we want to do is a ‘recovery’.”

Now it had started to rain. Patrollers weren’t giving up, but the search was suspended and would resume in daylight. Around 1:00 am, everyone had returned to the patrol building to rest.

Some felt rescuer’s guilt, a feeling of frustration and hopelessness. “We help people, save people, and work tirelessly to achieve that task. But we were running out of resources and exhausted,” says MSSP Director Jill Hoff. “The decision to pull back, re-group, make a plan, and start again in the morning was a very difficult one. But we have to make sure that our patrollers are safe. We’re all equipped to deal with the gravity of the situation.”

Schultz and seven others from DEM and INSAR pulled an all-nighter to review information and devise a new plan. “We decided it was possible that Wayne had gone over more to the west,” he says. They plotted on a map where searchers would go in the morning, which included 16 ski patrollers on the west side and six INSAR people on snowshoes searching the southeast section of the mountain.

Searchers were out the door by dawn. And then around 8:30 am, they received a call that the lost skier was at a home off Blanchard Creek Road, in Idaho.

Happy ending—Wayne was alive and uninjured, only wet, cold and exhausted after hiking in waist-deep snow.

Over the course of 20 hours, nearly 50 Mt. Spokane ski patrollers had taken part in the search. As one of the longest searches that MSSP ever conducted, it wouldn’t be declared officially over until 10:10 am, December 12, when the last patrollers were accounted for at the patrol building.

“Wayne is lucky,” says Schultz. “He’s a strong guy, but if he had gotten injured and couldn’t move, he might have frozen down there.”

“We put our patrollers out there in hazardous conditions,” says Hoff. “We put ourselves at risk trying to save somebody. This was a prime example of why we spend so many hours training.”

All Mt. Spokane patrollers are certified in Outdoor Emergency Care and CPR and are members of the National Ski Patrol. According to Hoff, MSSP is the “largest all volunteer patrol organization, if not the only one left, in the nation.”

Here is what MSSP suggests you do if you ever get lost on a mountain:

STEP 1: Call 911 if you have cell service, so your location can be determined.

STEP 2: If you can move, go back the direction you came even if it’s uphill because that is where you know people are. “It’s going to be slow and hard, but there’s a much better chance of getting found, especially when it’s snowing and your tracks are getting covered up,” says Schultz.

STEP 3: If you can stay warm, hold your position and mark your location. Try to make it as easy as possible for rescuers to find you from any direction. “When people are lost, they don’t think straight. That’s why it’s good to sit tight or head back the direction you came,” he says. Cross skis planted in the snow, and if that’s not possible make it apparent that something is out of place so rescuers will notice.

Moreover, to help yourself survive such an ordeal, Schultz says everyone “should carry a pack with the ‘thirteen essentials’ for the backcountry, such as matches, a map of the area, a compass—and know how to use it—and other supplies. If you’re not savvy enough to do this, then don’t ski out of the [resort boundary] area.”

(Author disclosure: My husband is a MSSP member and participated in the late night search.)

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