The Volunteers Behind Search and Rescue

When things go wrong, these are the volunteers who come to the rescue

Photo Courtesy of NH Fish and Game

The call can come at any time and in any type of weather. Yet volunteers drop what they’re doing and venture out in all conditions to a trailhead, answering the call for a hiker in need.

“It forever amazes me,” says the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Lt. James Kneeland. “They go above and beyond. I make the call and these people show up. Their commitment is amazing. They just show up. I don’t know how to explain it other than certain people are just built that way.”

Kneeland heads up Fish and Game’s search and rescue team, and jointly oversees the New Hampshire hikeSafe education program.

When it comes to search and rescue, Fish and Game oversees the backcountry operations in the state, but there is an exception. By mutual agreement, the US Forest Service manages winter and spring campaigns in the Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines on Mt. Washington’s east side, which is called the Cutler River Drainage.

But those two agencies can’t do it alone. That’s where volunteers come in, belonging to organizations in the White Mountains such as Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue, the Mountain Rescue Service and Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. Other organizations, like the Appalachian Mountain Club, help too.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, says Kneeland — they’re mountain guides, climbers, teachers, business people, retirees and more. They love being outdoors, are compassionate and have a desire to give back to the community.

“I think a lot of times people encourage an ongoing rescue on the trails,” says Kneeland, who has been involved with search and rescue (SAR) for a good 25 years. “They help out and then realize it is something they want to be part of. They want to join in a more organized fashion.”

Some come with a first responder background and have experience with police, fire or ambulance work. Navigation skills are handy, but training evens the playing field.

Frank Carus, director of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center and a team leader and trainer for Mountain Rescue Service, has been in SAR since 1991.

He says many volunteer to help fellow adventurers. “They want to make a difference in their community,” he says.

According to Carus, the US Forest Service has in-house training for working with avalanche beacons, dog service, response time, pre-planning and making sure equipment is where it needs to be. Some are also trained with rope courses for rescues on big cliffs.

Volunteers receive training several times a year, and many are already mountain guides with skills such self-rescue and glacier travel, which are helpful on the rockpile. He says volunteers get about 20 calls during the winter/spring season.

Though volunteering has its benefits, there are drawbacks.

“When people miss work, that’s a bummer,” says Carus. “It’s one thing to volunteer your time, but missing work is another thing. The pros get paid. It’s tough. People can lose interest, and it can cut into family life.”

Plus, Mt. Washington has its own challenges.

“There is low visibility, extreme cold, and you can be treating and transporting someone with significant injuries,” says Carus.

Your hands can freeze in less that a minute if you have to take off gloves to treat and evaluate someone. Even latex gloves tear in the cold.

“There are steep slopes, cliffs and avalanche conditions,” he says. “The worst weather in the world. It feels like the Andes and Himalayas.”

When volunteers get the call, they grab their packs, stocked with hiking necessities. At the trailhead, equipment is distributed among the group to share the load. There can be ropes, oxygen bottles and a litter used to carry an injured party out of the woods.

“We usually put three people on each side,” says Kneeland. “The average hiker weighs 180 to 190 pounds, so we split that up six ways. You’re carrying 30 or 40 pounds in one arm over rocky, steep terrain. It’s not easy on the hips, knees or shoulders. It is a rugged, grueling process to carry someone out of the woods.”

Each organization has its own requirements, says Kneeland. Volunteers must complete qualifying hikes, attend meetings and train throughout the year. Fish and Game holds an annual voluntary training session in May, which attracts many volunteers.

Depending upon which rescue team they’re on, Kneeland estimates a volunteer could go on an average of 15 to 30 calls per year. The busiest times? Early summer and fall, says Kneeland.

“What is takes is a willingness that when the phone rings, you drop what you are doing,” says Kneeland. “It cuts into different things. This happens in all types of weather. You can look outside and it’s raining, and it’s not all that nice, but they drop everything and go.”

Hikers can safeguard themselves against becoming lost or injured. Education is key, and you should adhere to hikeSafe guidelines. Knowing how to use your equipment before you go is important too, as is sticking with a group.

“We have beautiful mountains and stuff is going to happen, just like it happens on a sidewalk,” says Kneeland. “You can turn an ankle, twist a knee. But what bothers me is the people who leave late in the day, don’t have a light in their pack and push the envelope. No light is frustrating.”

“You recognize the key role prevention and education play,” says Carus. “The weather forecast, mountain guides and hikeSafe are critical components to head these things off.”

But, it’s human nature to make mistakes. And luckily, it’s also human nature people to want to help others.

“I have the utmost respect for volunteers, the team effort, the team approach,” says Kneeland. “Without volunteers, our mission at Fish and Game would almost be an impossible task. Those volunteers are important, if not an essential piece of equipment when getting search and rescue done successfully in the state of New Hampshire.”

Categories: Outsider, Winter Sports