Charles Pitman knows full well it doesn't take long to get disoriented and frightened when you're lost in strange woods. That's why he and Summit County Search Group have been on-call all weekend.
Actually, the local search and rescue outfit — run entirely by volunteers, including spokesman and mission coordinator Pitman — is on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year for backcountry emergencies of all types: lost skiers, lost hikers, injured splitboarders, marooned rock climbers, even whitewater kayakers caught between a rock and an even rockier place.
Pitman and crew tend to be more visible during the cold winter months, when unpredictable conditions catch even expert skiers and snowboarders off-guard, but his staff of 30 to 40 (and sometimes more) alpinists, EMTs and ski patrollers don't disappear when the snow melts. In fact, Pitman, who's been with the rescue group for 13 years now, says summer can sometimes lead to more calls — and more field operations — than the thick of winter.
Good thing it's the 21st Century. Like most emergency dispatch centers across the U.S., Summit County uses a Phase 2 system, which can accurately pinpoint the GPS signal of a cell phone when someone calls 911. Thanks to Summit County's booming population — with the good comes the bad, usually — cell service on most popular trails and even some backcountry routes is crystal clear. These days, rather than send a full search party when someone doesn't return in time, Pitman can use the GPS "ping" from a cell phone call to accurately pinpoint a lost hiker's position. Once he has that, he'll scour intricately details maps of the area — the sort with everything from beaver ponds to elevation lines — and talk someone back to a safe route, whether they're one mile or 100 yards from the trail.
"On some of these instances, it's amazing how much contact we can have," Pitman said. "I can literally sit at my dining room table, plot a position for someone, and then help them get back to where they need to be. It has reduced the number of pure searches we have."
Does that mean Summit County Rescue Group has gone soft? Hardly. The volunteers are still highly trained professionals with plenty of experience on local terrain, so when a friend (or you) are in need of help on the trail, don't hesitate to call 911. That's why they're here.
The weekend before Fourth of July, when the county's population booms by tenfold, the Summit Daily sports desk talked with Pitman for a bigger, broader picture of the rescue group's summer duties, from Quandary Peak after a freak May snowstorm to tips for staying safe in the backcountry.
Summit Daily News: Fourth of July is easily the busiest time of summer for Summit County. How have things been for search and rescue?
Charles Pitman: It hasn't been too bad actually. We've really only had two real calls, including one that was swift water. A woman and her granddaughter decided to take an inflatable raft down the Snake River from Keystone, and they got caught up between some Boulders. They were able to get off the river, but we had to get out there to retrieve the raft and their possessions.
Another was when a group of gentlemen were hiking Buffalo (Mountain). The boulders on that approach are very unstable and this individual stepped on a boulder, lost his balance, and got injured to the point I wasn't sure how bad it was (when we heard from them). We ended up flying in four people to check him out and they were able to help him out, down the mountain, but those are the only two, so we've been very fortunate. Knock on wood, but I hope things stay reasonably quiet.
SDN: Buffalo Mountain seems like a hotspot for rescue calls. Do you think that's because it's so close to towns and the interstate, like Mount Royal in Frisco or Quandary Peak near Breckenridge?
CP: Yes, it's relatively short, but it's also very steep. It can get ugly if someone gets injured in the boulder field up there. But we've also had calls for people on (nearby) Lily Pad Lake getting lost and I think the problem earlier this summer was that there was so much deadfall. I live up in Wildernest and remember when the wind was howling through there at 70 miles per hour this winter. When that happens, the trail gets obscured, people go around the deadfall and, in some instances, they haven't been able to find the trail again. Fortunately, those calls are pretty easy, where they call 911 and bounce the GPS coordinates to us and we go get them. But it's very easy to lose track of the trail with that deadfall.
SDN: How do you think Summit County's popularity during the holidays — all year long, actually — impacts the number of calls the rescue group gets for hikers?
CP: Because of the number of people, there are a lot of social trails around town. They're also called braided trails. When people live in condos or other housing areas, they can make their own trails — which drives the Forest Service nuts, by the way — and these trails can come in at such an angle you won't see them when you hike in. Then, on your way back, you see two trails and aren't sure where they lead. People will keep going sometimes on the wrong trail, trying to find a solution to the problem they got into, and people can get dug in deep. Whether you're 100 yards off the trail or a mile off the trail, it can be disorienting.
SDN: How does the rescue group's role change from summer to winter?
CP: Some of the calls are the same, but they're a little different. I think just the nature of winter means that people are better prepared — they know the weather can turn sour or cold or anything else.
In the summer, though, we'll have people in a cotton t-shirt and tennis shoes with one water bottle head for the summit of Quandary Peak. I think the preparedness in summer tends to change, but we still want people to take the basics — the 10 Essentials, we call them (see sidebar). It's amazing how often people get delayed and don't have something like a flashlight, when a trip takes longer than they ever expected and they're on a trail after dark. Those basics are there to help you stay safe, to stay warm and relatively OK until we get there.
SDN: Other than heading out unprepared, what mistakes are hikers making before they call search and rescue?
CP: Another big thing are people who try to take shortcuts. The two places we find that most often are on Mount Royal and Quandary, with Quandary in particular. A lot of people hike that (14er) because the access on the East Ridge is fairly easy access. But it's still long, and when people will get to the top after five hours they look to the south and think, "There are the lakes. I can pick my way down through here." But that begins to get steeper and steeper until it turns to cliff bands, and there's one area we call "The Escape Hatch," and that's where people will find themselves get cliffed out. We've actually bolted that area because it makes it easier for us to get up and get down to help people who have gotten in trouble.
SDN: What advice do you have for folks who aren't used to hiking in the mountains or at altitude?
CP: People think you don't get hypothermia in the summertime, but when you start on a hike at 70 degrees and get hot, get sweaty and get perspiration, and then the temperature drops to 50 degrees and the wind comes out, we have a whole different situation (…) Hypothermia in the summer, it can definitely happen.
You also primarily want to keep an eye on the weather. People who aren't from the mountains sometimes don't appreciate how quickly it can change. If you're hiking up a mountain and see the storm clouds building, maybe you need to reassess your goals for the day. It might be time to get down low, have a nice lunch and save it for another day (…) It's the same thing for us, for rescuers. Everything is safety for us, safety for our people, and if you need to have an extraction on a ridgeline in weather, there is nothing more frightening than that. People need to take that into consideration when they make decisions.
SDN: You mentioned that a 911 call sends GPS coordinates to rescuers. How do cell phones fit into the search and rescue picture these days? Do they help or hurt?
CP: One of the biggest issues we have is that people leave their cell phones on in the backcountry. The problem is that when you leave connection, your phone uses a lot of energy trying to search for a cell tower. It can be drained in three or four hours, but you might be in the field for six or seven hours. A lot of times, we'll talk with someone who is in need of help and they'll say, "I only have 10-percent battery left."
There are a couple ways around this: either turn your phone off or put it in airplane mode, which means it's not looking for a cell tower all the time. There are also very inexpensive batteries that plug into your phone or tablet, and depending on the size you get and the power, you can charge your phone once or twice over (…) It's just frustrating for us as rescuers when we're trying to coordinate with an individual and their phone has died. When you really need it, you want as much power on your phone as possible. Texting also takes less power than a phone call. That's always a good option, to send a text to one of your friends.