Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 15
Lost and foundThe Yosemite Search and Rescue Team strives to keep hikers, campers, and even pilots safe
BY AMY ASMAN
On Dec. 17, 2012, local resident Nicol Wilson boarded his small, white plane and took off from the Santa Ynez Airport. He was on his way to the Mammoth Lakes Airport to join his family for the upcoming holiday.
He never arrived.
Around 12:30 p.m. that day, as Wilson was flying over Yosemite National Park, he hit a big snowstorm.
“It was snowing in the high country and in the valley, so there was no visibility at all,” park spokesperson Kari Cobb told the Sun in a recent interview.
Authorities spotted Wilson on the radar when he was flying over North Dome, the area directly north of the park’s most iconic rock formation, Half Dome.
“That was the last place he was seen,” Cobb said.
Wilson’s family members contacted the same day to report their loved one missing.
Almost immediately after being alerted to the emergency, the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team attempted to launch a search effort, but the turbulent winter weather prevented its members from making any real progress.
“They tried to start the search on Dec. 18, but they couldn’t get a plane up,” Cobb said. “They managed to get a plane up on Dec. 19, but by then the high country had received over a foot of snow and there was already snow on the ground—and he was flying a white plane.”
Locating a tiny, white object in a vast sea of white proved to be futile. Another storm on Dec. 22—this one even bigger than the last—brought the already struggling search to a screeching halt.
“Everything out there was covered in snow,” Cobb said, explaining that the only way to reach North Dome in those kinds of conditions is by skis, over several days.
“The amount of snow present and the time it would take to get out there made the search extremely dangerous for the crews. It was too big of an area to search,” she said.
Faced with increasingly hazardous weather, search and rescue authorities called off the search until just recently. A mild winter allowed the team to start searching for Wilson and his plane earlier than expected. Authorities sent out a foot patrol with dogs when Tioga Pass opened in the spring, but they didn’t find anything.
In late April, rangers started a limited continuous search, which means law enforcement looks for indications of a downed plane while on their regular patrol routes.
“[The rangers] are aware to look out for things that appear out of the ordinary, like burn scars or trees cut off by a plane crash or pieces of metal that could have come from a plane,” Cobb said.
She said the search for Wilson is more complicated than usual because authorities still don’t know if his plane actually went down in the park.
“And if he did go down in the park in December, he wouldn’t be alive,” Cobb said.
“Yosemite is very, very big. Unfortunately, we still have people who have been missing for years,” she said, adding that the search and rescue team strives tirelessly to find everyone—or at least their remains—so families can have some closure.
“[Wilson’s family members] know that we’re trying to return him to them,” she said.
When tragedies occur, people—and media—tend to focus on the extremes; the grisly, gruesome details or the unbelievable feats of heroism.
Moose Mutlow, the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team’s family liaison coordinator, called the men and women he works with “fairly ordinary people who do exceptional things.”
“Many of our rangers have citations for valor, but they don’t like to make a big deal of it because they get embarrassed,” he said. “They very quietly do their jobs.”
Mutlow’s day job is the environmental education director for Nature Bridge, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides children and teens with hands-on field science education in national parks throughout the Pacific Northwest. He’s also served on the search and rescue team for the past nine years.
Park officials explained that the team responds to roughly 250 incidents a year. Most of them are medical calls for people who twist an ankle or break a bone while hiking. But some calls are more serious, like in Wilson’s case.
When someone goes missing in the park, the incident commander evaluates the situation and makes such key decisions as how the investigation will proceed and whether to assign a family liaison.
“If it’s a major search, it becomes obvious that there’s a need for a higher level of support,” Mutlow said.
He described the family liaison as the conduit between the mission and the family.
“The liaison allows the rest of the search and rescue team to focus on the mission, and acts as a buffer for the incident commander so he’s not distracted by the family,” he explained.
While that might sound callous, Mutlow said it’s necessary because “the team wants to put as much energy as possible into finding that missing person.”
During a search, the liaison answers any questions the family might have and keeps them up to date on how the investigation is progressing. That way the family feels connected to the rescue effort. He said it often helps families to have someone they can talk to face-to-face.
For example, the liaison could give the family a map of the area with a detailed description of the plan for the next several hours.
“It helps paint a clearer picture of the search … and it gives them something solid—a map or a picture—to walk away with,” he said.
In many ways, the liaison is the heart of the mission because he’s the one who makes an emotional connection with the family; he starts to see the missing person through the family’s eyes.
Mutlow said making that connection can be both exhausting and exhilarating.
“It’s tough because you want the same outcome as the family; you want to find the person healthy and well,” he said.
He explained that movies and television shows have given many people misconceptions of what authorities can do during searches.
“People who watch CSI and all of those detective shows think there’s all this technology we can tap in to that will make the person magically appear, but there isn’t,” he said. “Like if there was a drowning, they think we can stick a camera under the water to locate the body, but river water is aerated water that’s highly violent. You can’t submerge a camera in it; you need a light source.”
He said the liaison has to be incredibly sensitive to the family’s feelings—their hopes and fears—and not take anything personally.
“You go through all those stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining—with the family. You can’t put the entire team through that because it would destroy them,” he said.
“You have to be honest about where you’re at emotionally; you have to acknowledge your feelings and the feelings of the family, and validate them,” he explained. “You let them say anything they want to, and you don’t take it personally because you realize they’re having the shittiest day ever.”
In comparison, he said finding someone alive is the best part of the job.
“It’s pretty exhilarating when you find a live one. There’s a lot of laughter,” he said. “Of course, the sense of pleasure you have when you find someone is nowhere near what the family experiences, but the team gets closure.”
An eclectic team
Dave Pope has been a ranger in Yosemite since 2004. He also serves on the search and rescue team.
“Being a park ranger is like being part of normal law enforcement in any city,” Pope said.
He explained that when someone in Yosemite calls 911, the call gets rerouted to the park’s emergency incident command center. A dispatcher screens the call and sends resources accordingly. A page is sent out to the search and rescue team, including law enforcement and the SAR (search and rescue) siters, a group of volunteers that lives in the park.
“On an average weekend day, we have 15 reports of overdue parties—people who don’t show up at a predetermined place when they said they would,” Pope said. “Often times they resolve themselves, but if it’s a 5-year-old child who’s gone missing, that’s something else. That’s an emergency.”
When that happens, Pope takes a reprieve from his everyday ranger duties and goes into “search mode.”
The team usually starts with a hasty search, which he said includes “combing the trails with people, flying helicopters into the backcountry, and setting up a containment area with trail blocks.”
Team members interview the missing person’s friends and family, along with other hikers traveling on the trails near the missing person’s last known location.
“If we have a really good reporting party who gives us lots of detailed information, we can use that as the point last seen,” he said.
Authorities use the point last seen to determine the scope of the search.
“We take the point last seen and draw a big circle around it, typically on a three- to four-mile radius,” Pope said. “That’s the foundation of any search, whether it’s an Alzheimer’s patient in the city or a backpacker in the backcountry.”
When asked about the Wilson case, Pope said he couldn’t go into much detail except to say that the plane’s radar coordinates are being used as the point last known for the search.
On the day the Sun met with the search and rescue team in Yosemite Valley, Pope and his fellow teammates were conducting a water rescue demonstration for the public.
Dressed in waterproof “dry” suits, Pope and family liaison coordinator Mutlow showed a crowd of reporters, photographers, and schoolchildren one of the ways they rescue people who’ve fallen into the Merced River.
If the victim is responsive, a rescuer will often throw him a rope from the shore and then pull him in. When that doesn’t work, the team tries something more aggressive.
“Sometimes people who fall in the river are so hypothermic that they can’t grab the rope, or they’re unconscious,” Pope said. (The day of the demo, the river water was 42 degrees and moving at 500 cubic feet per second). “For these situations, we use the ‘baited swimmer’ or worm-and-hook method.”
The rescuer, who’s tied to a spotter on shore, jumps out into the water and arcs around to catch the person as he or she floats by, like a hook catching a worm.
The rescuers also use kayaks or boogie boards and fins to maneuver up and down the river. Ropes and pulleys come into the mix as well, but they’re typically used to recover the body of someone who has died.
Bud Miller is a volunteer SAR siter who lives at Camp 4 in the Yosemite Valley. An avid climber with medical training, Miller helps operate the riggings for swift water and climbing rescues.
“We’re all big climbers, and we’re all trained as EMTs or higher,” he said. “We don’t make a ton of money, but we get to climb and to be out here and help other climbers.”
The volunteers live in the park six months of the year—May 1 through Oct. 31—and respond to search and rescue emergencies. When they’re not working an incident, they’re supported financially by a nonprofit group called Friends of Yosemite Search and Rescue.
On the day of the demonstration, Miller and his fellow SAR siters set up a highline rig between two large trees on opposite sides of the river. During rescues, one of the team members is attached to the highline via a harness and then taxied back and forth using a separate line. The team member can also be lowered up and down to catch the victim as he floats downstream.
“You do a lot of rescues. The ones that aren’t rescues—the recoveries—are the ones that stick with you more,” Miller said. “The climbing fatalities strike closest to home for me because I’m a climber. But fortunately that doesn’t happen too often.”
What you can do to help
All three search and rescue team members said the vast majority of accidents that occur in Yosemite can be prevented—people just need to be careful and, as the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.
Family liaison coordinator Mutlow said people get lulled into a false sense of security in Yosemite because there are roads and buildings and law enforcement on patrol.
“Most of the accidents are borne out of ignorance more than anything else because the person doesn’t have the necessary experience,” he said. “And nature is so much bigger and more powerful than we are.”
Mutlow said hikers should always leave an itinerary with someone they trust and check in frequently with the other people in their party or with park rangers if they’re backpacking. Other recommendations include having adequate supplies of food and water, as well as a first aid kit and warm clothing; being sensitive to the altitude gain once inside the park; and knowing your limits.
“The best stories are the stories told by the person, not about the person,” Mutlow said. “Have an adventure, but have it within the bounds of what you’re capable of.”
Park ranger Pope said visitors to the park should also be aware of their surroundings, especially when they’re close to the Merced River.
The week before this article went to press, the Los Angeles Times reported on the death of a 19-year-old man who was swimming above Nevada Falls when the current carried him over the precipice. According to the Times, at least 14 people have gone over falls along the Mist Trail corridor in the last 10 years, and none of them survived.
There are signs by all of the falls telling people not to swim in the area, along with signs along the trails alerting people to potential hazards.
“Things happen really quickly,” SAR-siter Miller said. “The signs are there for a reason.”
Other signs people in the park should be aware of are the missing person fliers at trailheads. Eyewitness reports from backpackers and hikers can be incredibly helpful to the search and rescue team.
For example, American businessman and aviator Steve Fossett had been missing for a year when a hiker found his identification cards in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Authorities discovered the crash site of his plane a few days later; a month-long search of the site and surrounding area led to the recovery of Fossett’s remains.
Mutlow said if you see something unusual while out in the forest, you should take a picture of it and give it to a park staff member.
“And write everything down while it’s fresh in your mind,” he said. “The written word is so much more reliable than memory because your imagination will try to fill the gaps to make a really good Hallmark movie.”
“If something feels wrong, pay attention to that. It’s much better to have too much information than not enough,” he said.
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at firstname.lastname@example.org.