Search and rescue: Money, time and training back lifesaving teams across Utah

Published: Sunday, July 6 2014 3:20 p.m. MDT

"That kind of a background is really fairly common, where you have people who have become moderately — or in some cases extremely — skilled in their sport and their outdoor recreation, and they decide they want to help others out," he said. "I'm volunteering that skill set to the community."

Sohl, a skilled climber, specializes in high-angle rescues and recoveries. Weber County responded to 31 incidents last year, and a few of calls each year require Sohl's specific expertise, like rope work, mountaineering, or rock and ice climbing.

He's quick to admit he's not great with a snowmobile.

"We're doing the sort of stuff in the backcountry that we like to do recreationally, and we're doing it to help somebody else out," Sohl said.

There are approximately 100 volunteers in Weber County, sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Toll said. Their expertise ranges from climbers like Sohl to divers, hikers, snowmobilers and more. One group unique to Weber County is a team of air boaters tasked with assisting duck hunters in marshy areas.

Volunteers can be reimbursed for fuel and damaged equipment but not their time, Toll said.

Sohl and his wife don't mind. They love the thrill, and they're willing to help.

"When (my wife and I) get a call out and there's somebody in a challenging situation, then for us that's just cool," Sohl said. "We're out the door together and we're talking about the whole thing, and we're laying out ideas of what we think it could be based on preliminary information, and what kind of gear do we need. We're planning the whole way there."

Search and rescue volunteers across the state must have first aid training to join, and continue participating in regular trainings and team meetings to stay on the roster. Buck Naegle, Iron County search and rescue commander and a manager at the Cedar City Wal-Mart, is always surprised at the assortment of people offering to help.

"It's a devoted team down here," Naegle said. "They're folks from all walks of life. I've got teachers, plumbers, electricians, truck drivers — I've got it all. They're a well-rounded team."

Self rescue

When search and rescue is called, crews might not show up right away.

"There is a misconception in the public that if something bad happens, that there is some kind of magic carpet ride that gets you out of a wilderness location," said Ray O'Neil, a Zion National Park employee. "The reality is there are many, many places in Zion National Park where you're going to spend the night no matter how seriously injured you are, and it's not going to be until the next day that you get out."

Zion National Park's search and rescue team is made up of park service employees such as O'Neil who volunteer for search duties in addition to their regular tasks.

Some tips for preventing accidents in the outdoors are very simple, like not jumping off things you shouldn't, O'Neil said. He also advises Utahns to be willing to change their plans if their day out isn't want they expected.

Injury and death can be avoided by turning around if a hike is too strenuous, avoiding treacherous areas when there are storms or extreme heat in the forecast, or packing adequate water and supplies for an unexpectedly long outing, O'Neil said.

Zion employee Craig Thexton calls search and rescue one of the most satisfying parts of his job, joking that he is accused of wanting people to get in trouble so he can go help them. In reality, he'd rather see them help themselves, Thexton said.

"We enjoy what we do. We take pride in what we do," he said. "But the bottom line is that we'd rather not do it. If we hear about folks who have an injury somewhere or are in some kind of trouble and they manage to self-rescue, that is more satisfying than anything else."

In the Salt Lake Valley, groups out for a hike often don't realize they can get in trouble so close to home, Skinner said. His advice to hikers out on Mount Olympus is to keep an eye on the trail behind them as they go so they know what to expect on the way back.

"They can see they valley the entire time that you're hiking, but just because you can see the valley doesn't mean you can find a safe route down if you get off the trail," Skinner said.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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