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Loving Our Lands: Search And Rescue Missions Are On The Rise In Utah

Aron Ralston's hand was rescued from Blue John Canyon after he amputated his hand
The Telegraph
Aron Ralston pinned in Blue John Canyon, outside of Canyonlands National Park, for five days

Utah’s public lands welcome tourists from around the globe to play, explore and adventure - sometimes to a fault. In the last four years, Utah has seen a 68 percent increase in search and rescue missions in our national parks. Just last year, there were 324 rescues statewide, costing Utah nearly $300,000 in equipment, training and manpower.

So who foots the bill for these large-scale operations?

Generally, it depends on the state legislature. In 1977 Utah implemented the search and rescue, or SAR, card program to reimburse local sheriff's departments for search and rescue missions on public lands. Participants spend anywhere from $35- 140 for the card, which opts them into the national search and rescue fund.

“It’s like a seatbelt. It’s something you want to have and you never want to use,” said Mike Coranella, a member of Grand County Search and Rescue since 2009, which has the highest rate of search and rescue missions in the state.

Your entrance fee covers the cost of your search and rescue within national parks. Search and rescue teams often don’t charge the rescued individual, even if they are being negligent, because it delays reporting.

Of the better-known search and rescue missions is the story of Aron Ralston from 2013. Avid outdoorsmen Ralston was pinned by his arm just outside of Canyonlands National Park by a massive boulder. After nearly five days of being trapped, Ralston would amputate his arm with a dull pocketknife and scramble to safety.

Ralston’s story was unique because although he technically rescued himself, the parks department initiated a mission to retrieve his hand. Bill Foreman has worked with the National Parks Service Search and Rescue since 1964, and was one of thirteen team members who rigged the 800-pound rock from the narrow rock slit where Ralston was held captive.

“A helicopter was on our frequency so we could all talk to each other," he said. "Somebody in the helicopter, they were out searching for Aron Ralston and said, 'We have some people in the canyon trying to flag us down’, and the guy got on the radio again and he said, ‘We found him. Looks like he’s in pretty good shape. We think we’ll fly him up to his truck at the parking area.’

"So at that point, that’s all we know. We knew he’d been found and our search was over. So I got back at the trailhead and as I was standing there in my parks service uniform, a family of three from Amsterdam came walking out. It was mom, dad and their son - who was nine, 10, 11 years old - says, ‘We found him! And he cut off his hand!’, and that was the first we’d heard of it." 

Blue John Canyon
Credit Wikipedia

Ralston’s hand was later cremated. Some remains spread in the retrieval spot in Blue John Canyon, and the rest was given to his mother.

Of the many team members involved in the Aron Ralston story, Bego Garehart is notorious for his skills in search and rescue developed over 23 years of working for Grand County search and rescue and the national parks service.

“My search and rescue stuff started out at Boy Scout camp," he said. "You know, if a scout got lost, we had to go look for him. Well, turned out to be very interesting to me even back then. How do you find somebody who’s lost? I didn’t know back then, but there are certain formulas and ways to think nowadays that have been developed over these decades to look for lost people.”

Chris Boyer is the executive director for the National Association for Search and Rescue.

“I ran a search and rescue team for almost ten years in California and we had everyone from the local butcher at Safeway Store to a lawyer," he said. "So it’s a little bit of everything. It’s quite the melting pot.”

Boyer has trained hundreds of rescue volunteers, like Garehart, to take action in life-threatening conditions.

“There’s a general set of core skills that you need that we teach in what we call a fundamentals search and rescue course," he said. "That takes about 40 hours to learn. That includes things like land navigation, grid searching, interviewing techniques to do trail interviews or missing person interviews, ropes and knots, personal survival, basic first aid." 

Boyer tells us in addition to intensive training and experience, search and rescue team members almost always continue their work out of altruism or love for the outdoors.

“Some of these folks have an outdoor interest," he said. "They hike, they play in the outdoors, they’ve seen this sort of thing happen around them and they want to be ready for it if it does. Other people have an interest in helping out in their community. Maybe they’ve had a family member or they know someone or they know someone that knows someone that’s been lost before and they want to help and they don’t have any experience outdoors. They’ve never backpacked, they’ve never camped and we have to train them up from scratch to do that."

Though the story of Aron Ralston was unique for most search and rescue missions, it stands as an example of the risk you take when you indulge in Utah’s beautiful landscapes.

Ralston speaks motivationally on the will to live and conquering life's challenges
Ralston now speaks motivationally

“We probably do a lot of search and rescues because people are out of their element, they’re in over their head," Boyer said. "They believe that perhaps they buy the right equipment, and they’ve not used it and they’ve not been outdoors with it, and the equipment can save them. Really it’s outdoor knowledge and outdoor experience that keeps you safe. So buying the best hiking shoes doesn’t tell you how to deal with a freak snowstorm in June, up in the Wasatch.” 

Support for Loving Our Lands To Death is made possible in part by the USU Quinney College of Natural Resources, where students and faculty promote the sustainability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. Information can be found here