When Wilderness Injuries Happen, Volunteers are There to Help
On January 21, 2007, the Korean Alpine Club of Utah sent climbers up snowy Mount Olympus—a 3,500-foot ascent from valley floor. During the climb, three club members fell on the ice and tumbled about 100 feet, requiring a rescue to get them off the mountain. Due to the peak’s steep slopes, the only way to do it was sending a helicopter to the summit where six rescuers were dropped off and climbed down to stabilize the injured climbers. One climber had a suspected pelvic fracture; another was suffering from frostbitten toes.
Unfortunately, the team couldn’t get them off the mountain before nightfall, and the rescuers had to spend the night with them in sub-zero temperatures.
It wasn’t until morning that a Life Flight helicopter could reach the stranded team and extract the injured climbers while the rest climbed back down. This thrilling rescue is just one day in the life of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team.
Volunteer Rescue Workers
If you’ve ever wondered who would come to help you if you were injured in Utah’s mountains, it would be Mike Loyd’s team of volunteers. Mike is the coordinator for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team—its only paid position—and the one who puts together a team of trained volunteers to rescue stranded hikers, injured skiers, and dehydrated adventurers. He’s most proud of the group;s record, “We’ve never had anyone die while we were with them. We have some national notoriety for that.”
Mike works under the direction of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office and coordinates about 35 volunteers to assist in searches and rescues. His volunteers are members of Mountain Rescue Association and must pass a test every three years to stay certified.
In the winter, Mike also works in tandem with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, a group connected to ski resorts, but independent from the Sheriff’s office. These rescue workers are made up mostly of on-duty ski patrollers and assist in ski-related rescues.
A Recent Rescue
Mike’s team can gather quickly when the need arises to save lives in cases like the Mountain Olympus climbers, and more recently to rescue a teen in Millcreek Canyon. On January 2, 2020, a 17-year-old hiker from California set out on a 16-mile hike from Millcreek Canyon to Park City.
He had family and friends in Salt Lake, but was not staying with them, and had planned to hike to Park City to join some friends for dinner. Though he’d packed plenty of food and water, he underestimated the time the hike would take, and its difficulty during the winter.
The initial call reporting him missing mentioned that an Uber driver dropped the teen off in Lamb’s Canyon, but it was later learned the canyon was actually Millcreek—but the rescue still didn’t know exactly where. The report came in at 8:00 p.m. so, unfortunately, the search couldn’t start until the next morning.
The Search & Rescue Team began looking at the canyon’s base and worked their way up the top. In the meantime, they tracked down the Uber driver and learned he’d dropped off the teen at the snowgate. This helped narrow the search, and they started concentrating on the Red Pine Jeep trail. Snowmobiling as fast as they could to the area, they found his boots. And after following his footprints, the team found some clothing strewn along the trail.
This is when Mike started to worry. “When people start to shed their clothes that is an indication of hypothermia,” he says. “People usually don’t make it at that point.” The team sped up their pace, desperately trying to find him. Luckily, they caught up with him about two minutes behind a pair of skiers who spotted him first.
Thankfully, the discarded clothing turned out to be excess he’d stored in his backpack. The hiker was wearing construction boots, rather than winter boots, and his hands became so cold that he couldn’t tie the leather laces. Once loosened by being left untied, the boots were sucked off in the deep snow. He couldn’t get them out, so he continued hiking in just his wool socks. The teen survived the night by building a make-shift snow hut under a tree.
Once the team located him, they bundled him up and transported him to the hospital by helicopter. Considering he’d spent a night on the mountain, he was in pretty good shape, losing some skin, but no toes. After the rescue, the grateful teen told Mike he’d never hike alone again and would let people know his exact plans.
Ski injury rescues often require Search & Rescue to team up with Wasatch Backcountry to find and save an injured person. Mike remembers one such event from 2014 in the Tanner’s Gulch area of Little Cottonwood Canyon. After accidentally skiing off a fifteen-foot cliff, a skier broke his leg at an elevation of around 9,400 feet.
“This was a tandem effort with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue,” says Mike. The on-duty ski patrollers from Wasatch Backcountry went to the top and worked their way down to the injured man while Salt Lake County Rescue came in from the bottom with all the heavy gear, such as splints, a sled, and heavy rope.
They patrollers reached the injured man first and started to stabilize him, moving him up and over the ridge because of dicey conditions. “The weather started setting in and we started to worry about avalanche danger,” says Mike.
The County team moved him to a sked—basically a heavy piece of plastic that can be rolled around an injured person like a burrito—to transport him down the mountain. After packing him in a sleeping bag with warming pads, they loaded him onto the sked and set off down the mountain. Getting up and over the ridge involved some rope work, but once over the top they were able to ski with the sked to safety.
To understand how lengthy and difficult on-mountain rescues can be, note that the call about the injured skier came in around 5:00 p.m. on February 7, 2014; the rescuers didn’t get him off the mountain until 1:30 a.m. With a concentrated effort between these two groups, the rescue was a success.
While it’s comforting to know that the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search & Rescue team has your back should you need a rescue in the wild, Mike has some advice to prevent yourself from needing one.
“The biggest thing is to plan your hike and hike your plan. Make sure someone knows your plan. Don’t go alone,” he says. “Most accidents that happen are avoidable with proper planning and preparedness. Plan to spend the night just in case, and take a backup battery for your phone. Take water, and don’t deviate from your plan. Variables happen, but most of the time an accident is just poor planning.”