Grand County Search and Rescue commander reflects on difficult year
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Jan 16, 2014 | 3329 views | 0 0 comments | 95 95 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Grand County Search and Rescue workers respond to an incident in 2011. The search and rescue team was called to help with 93 incidents in 2013, including eight fatalities and several extremely technical rescue efforts. Photo courtesy of Grand County Search and Rescue
Grand County Search and Rescue workers respond to an incident in 2011. The search and rescue team was called to help with 93 incidents in 2013, including eight fatalities and several extremely technical rescue efforts. Photo courtesy of Grand County Search and Rescue
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The Grand County Search and Rescue team had a tough year in 2013.

They spent less time responding to incidents and accidents last year, and they logged fewer miles on their vehicles. But the calls they did respond to – including eight fatal accidents – were very serious, while the higher-profile rescues they performed were especially complicated and risky, according to Search and Rescue Commander Jim Webster.

“The ones that involved ropes and evacuations down high-angle slopes [included] a lot of people with some expertise,” Webster said Jan. 14. “There is risk associated with [those efforts] when you add snowy or nighttime conditions and cold weather. That complicates it – it takes a lot of manpower and time to set [everything] up.”

In order to reach one injured BASE jumper on the Moab Rim, for instance, the team had to set up two lowering stations that used two sets of 300-foot ropes.

“Just to get to where he was – that was complicated in itself,” Webster said.

But the late-afternoon rescue grew even more difficult after the sun set: Rescuers had to set up lights in order to continue, and they weren’t able to move the injured man off the steep cliffside until later that night.

Despite the sometimes challenging and dangerous conditions search and rescue members face, Webster said that none of the 30-plus team members were seriously injured last year.

“We’re careful. We work deliberately,” Webster said. “We try as smartly as we can to mitigate those hazards to make [our operations] as safe as they can be for everybody.”

The search and rescue team handled 93 calls in 2013. The first of the eight fatalities occurred in early spring.

Moab resident Zachary Taylor, 20, died on March 13, after he fell about 120 feet while rappelling with friends in the Pritchett Canyon area southwest of town. Less than two weeks later, a 22-year-old West Jordan man Kyle Lee Stocking was killed as he attempted to rope swing at Corona Arch.

In early May, two out-of-area visitors died in separate fall-related accidents, and on June 1, 23-year-old Moab and Telluride resident Elizabeth Stiles Patterson died from injuries she sustained in a fall at Wilson Mesa. A Japanese tourist died later that month after he fell into the sandstone bowl area below Delicate Arch at Arches National Park.

In mid-October, a Denver-area physician who was severely injured in a mountain biking accident near Moab passed away after he was removed from life support at a Grand Junction hospital. Moab resident Daniel Moore, 22, died the following month in a BASE-jumping accident on state Route 128.

BASE jumpers Ammon McNeely of Ogden and Thayer Healey of Newark, Ohio, were severely injured during unrelated accidents in October and November. Both events were highly publicized, after the two men posted video footage of the incidents on YouTube.

Yet even though such incidents garnered the most attention, Webster noted that his team’s responses to BASE-jumping accidents actually dropped from six in 2012 to four last year.

Most 2013 search and rescue operations involved other groups of outdoor recreationists, including mountain bikers and hikers.

“It sort of goes along with what happens every year,” Webster said.

Mountain biking accidents accounted for more than one out of three responses, or 39 responses altogether.

Overall, though, the number of responses was down from 108 in 2012.

According to Webster, team members spent 2,716 hours in 2013 working on incidents, compared to 3,612 hours the year before.

Vehicular travel was also down, dropping from 20,679 miles in 2012 to 14,615 miles between last January and December, he said.

At the same time, Grand County Sheriff Steve White noted that average response times have improved dramatically since air ambulance service Classic Lifeguard opened a new base of operations in Moab.

In one case, it took the company’s team about 12 minutes to find a disoriented man who went missing in the Poison Spider area. White estimated that it might have taken a conventional search and rescue team six to eight hours to locate the man.

Webster agreed that the company’s service has been invaluable.

“It’s one of the things that has changed the game,” he said. “It has given us an additional resource and option that will help us respond more quickly. In some cases, it can make a real difference [in terms of] survivability.”

Both White and Webster are also grateful to the search and rescue team’s members and trainees.

The team currently consists of people with a wide range of backgrounds, including a veterinarian, a medical doctor and a professional photographer as well as a number of guides, bankers, real estate agents and retirees.

“They’re a great bunch of people,” White said.

Webster credited the search and rescue program’s success to the variety of people who joined the team.

“My hat is off to all of our team members, because everybody brings in their own unique skill set and personality to the group,” he said. “We cannot do our job without the diversity of skill and passion [they bring to the team].”

“It’s a satisfying avocation,” he added. “Everybody is in it to help people, and that’s the bottom line.”

They’re certainly not in it for the money, he said.

Although most of them are paid as part-time employees, Webster said the work requires a significant time commitment.

In addition to their work on search and rescue operations, team members help out at various service events.

The more than 30 members also participated in a total of 623 partial days of training in 2013. One team member spends extra time each year to train the team’s active search dog, which joined members on three calls last year, according to Webster.

All in all, it’s an expensive proposition to run such a busy yet small-sized operation, Webster said.

The program relies partly on county taxpayer and transient room tax money, and it uses donations to buy equipment. The Grand County Search and Rescue program also works with a third-party company to recoup some of the costs it incurs to rescue non-residents.

“It does not even come close to paying for the whole program, but it helps offset the costs,” Webster said.

More information about the program, is available online at www.gcsar.org/.

Copyright 2013 The Times-Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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