Practice makes perfect

Park County Search and Rescue members embark on winter training exercises. (Photo courtesy of PCSAR)

On a day-to-day basis, most of us probably don’t think much about the brave men and women who comprise the highly regarded Park County Search and Rescue unit.

But if we are hopelessly stuck in a snow drift without cell phone coverage, or we have fallen prey to a Park County avalanche, or we somehow get lost while hiking, camping or hunting, or we are injured in an ATV accident deep in the bowels of Slaughterhouse Gulch, it is a good bet that PCSAR will be at the forefront of our minds.

That’s probably fine by PCSAR personnel; they are accustomed to working in virtual anonymity and are not the types to seek recognition for their efforts. They are made up primarily of highly skilled volunteers with a common commitment to save lives and promote safety in a natural environment wrought with potential hazards.

But even so, The Flume frequently checks in with PCSAR to see how they are doing, to inquire about recent rescue efforts, and honestly, to live vicariously through their seemingly endless stream of lifesaving adventures and captivating stories that often end up in print on these very pages.

Alma resident Jim McCoy joined PCSAR about two years ago, and was recently elected to serve as one of six supervisors within the 24-person unit. McCoy, 61, is a retired engineer who was also a wilderness first responder before joining PCSAR.

Typical of PCSAR members, McCoy is humble, media-savvy and incredibly knowledgeable about the alluring but sometimes deadly nature of Park County backcountry.

A relatively quiet year

According to McCoy, 2020 was actually a pretty quiet year for PCSAR. Despite the high volume of traffic during the summer months, the volume of lifesaving or recovery missions has been nothing out of the ordinary.

“This year has probably been below average in terms of rescue calls, but 2019 was a huge year,” McCoy said.

McCoy participated in a well-documented, May 10, 2019 extraction of a Lakewood couple that had been trapped in a ravine deep in the backcountry of Pike National Forest’s Lost Creek Wilderness.

The couple had been lost and stranded near the Goose Creek Trailhead for about 65 hours prior to their extraction by the rescue team. The entire area was under a winter weather advisory during much of that time. Remarkably, the couple and their friendly canine were able to walk out under their own power once located by rescuers.

“I fully expected the wife to be ready to kill her husband by the time we found them,” McCoy jokingly recalled. “But they were in great spirits. They actually packed too much food, and when they got lost they just camped and just stayed put. They also let a neighbor know where they were going and when they planned to return and that’s probably what saved them.”

The successful extraction required an exhaustive effort on the part of PCSAR members and came at a cost of about $20,000.

McCoy did note that one man from Colorado Springs had lost his life due to a heart attack on Mt. Democrat this year, and that another injured man had been rescued from life threatening circumstances in Slaughterhouse Gulch, both during the summer months. But comparatively speaking, according to McCoy, it was “a pretty quiet summer.”

The call volume has picked up recently, however, due to people traveling roads normally closed during the winter months, according to McCoy.

“Because of the dry weather lately, many roads usually not accessible this time of year are actually drivable in 4-wheel drive vehicles and have remained open,” McCoy said. “But there are snow drifts across portions of those roads that can’t be driven through, and people have been getting stuck in those types of locations. A lot of times, they have no cell phone service and wind up in trouble. We recently had three of those situations in a span of a couple weeks.”

McCoy also mentioned that the onset of hunting season has recently prompted an uptick in calls as well.

Another Slaughterhouse rescue

Most recently, Dec. 11, a group of five teenagers from the Denver area came to Bailey and attempted a drive through Slaughterhouse Gulch. That youthful decision sparked two days of calls and rescue efforts for PCSAR.

“They got stuck and hiked about a mile and a quarter up a hill to get phone service and made a call,” McCoy said. They were about five miles from the trailhead and were an additional eight or nine miles from Deer Creek Road, and they were not dressed for cold weather. We got to them some time around midnight and they were pretty cold and happy to see us. If I recall correctly, temperatures that night got down to near zero.”

The next night that same group of teenagers went back to Slaughterhouse Gulch in an ambitious attempt to retrieve their vehicle. They were successful in freeing the vehicle, but only temporarily, before promptly getting it stuck and becoming stranded for a second time in 24 hours.

Once again, PCSAR reached them, and rescued them.

Might be an avalanche-prone spring

Just as unseasonably dry weather has presented new dangers on unpaved roads, it also threatens to make spring snowfall unusually unstable.

McCoy explained:

“Fallen snow can consolidate into little round crystals and bond together, or it can fail to stick together and become sort of like gravel. In the second scenario, unstable snow on the ground and more dry snow on top can cause problems. Right now, the existing snowpack is horrendously unstable.”

McCoy, who happens to be an exceptionally knowledgeable source with regards to avalanche dangers as they exist in Park County, went on to say that all Coloradans should tune into the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s site, www.avalanche.state.co.com, before traveling to avalanche-prone locations.

The site releases up-to-the-minute forecasts for every avalanche-prone area in the state. A map on the site displays every portion of the state where avalanche danger exists, and also gives detailed information about the probability of snow slides in those areas.

The CAIC site also provides information pertaining to recent avalanches and accidents, educational information from A to Z regarding the avoidance and survival of avalanches, and much more.

Ideally, according to McCoy, those going into high-elevation, avalanche-prone locations during the winter and spring seasons should carry avalanche beacons capable of sending out signals in the event that they are covered beneath a wall of snow. Probes and snow shovels are also advised.

A few smart moves

McCoy says a few smart moves can help to prevent or mitigate backcountry mishaps that might otherwise prompt emergency rescue calls to he and his PCSAR colleagues.

“Always be prepared to spend the night, let someone know where you are going, when you plan to return, and if possible, carry a satellite communicator,” McCoy said. “They offer two-way communications and work off of satellites in locations where there might not be cell phone service. They have an SOS button which contacts the International Coordination Center, a tracking system allowing others to track your location, and some of them offer and texting functions.”

Finally, McCoy said, it is always wise to have someone with you when you explore backcountry locations.

A worthy endeavor

McCoy said he has always wanted to work as part of a rescue unit, but that he didn’t always have the time to spare prior to his retirement six years ago.

“Whatever we do as a rescue team, there is a sense of accomplishment,” McCoy said. “Whether results are good, or bad, there is a feeling that you are helping others.”

A sad reality is that while PCSAR has a stunning success rate in rescue efforts, there are times when they embark on missions already knowing that the outcome will not be favorable for victims and their loved ones.

“We treat recoveries with the same sense of urgency as we do rescue missions,” McCoy said. “The urgency of time might not be there, but recovering the victim is no less important than it would be in a rescue situation.”

As we travel into the backcountry splendor that is so abundant in Park County, as we all probably will, let’s try to remember some of the safety and survival basics McCoy and other experts recommend.

Moreover, let’s also remember to support PCSAR’s efforts, which are funded almost exclusively by donations, fundraisers and grants. The unit has no paid employees. The funds they receive as donations are used to acquire and maintain their rescue/command center vehicles, snowmobiles, ATVs, repair and replace team gear (such as litters, ropes, climbing hardware, medical equipment, and radios) and operational expenses.

And finally, let’s not wait until we are stranded in snowdrifts to remember the incredible sacrifices of the selfless volunteers like McCoy, who serve in one of Colorado’s most highly respected local rescue units – the Park County Search and Rescue team.

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