The Wasatch Back is a beautiful place adorned with a plethora of activities and destinations for the outdoor adventurer. Whether you’re a seasoned local or a new visitor to the area, you are likely to find yourself drawn to recreate in these great outdoors.
Unfortunately, a fun outdoor activity can quickly turn into an emergency situation a snowmobile can tip, a person can become lost on a familiar hike or even be tossed from a raft as it plows through raging rapids. In these moments of panic people are wise to call 911 — they need help from the experts. They need Search and Rescue.
Search and Rescue, or SAR for short, has been a vital resource for the people of the Wasatch Back for well over 50 years. SAR covers all of Wasatch County and is responsible for over 1,200 square miles of nature’s playground.
The diversity of terrain and climate our environment presents requires this team to have to have an extensive skill set derived from intense training. Between training scenarios and actual emergencies, the Wasatch Back SAR teams receive over 100 calls a year. These calls require expertise in skills such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, swift water rescue, finding lost persons and medical aid. It’s no wonder their motto is “Anyone. Anytime. Anywhere.”
Captain Kam Kohler leads a team of 35 volunteers. That’s right — SAR is made up of volunteers. These 35 volunteers are people who — without notice — will desert their jobs, family gatherings, church meetings and their beds in the dead of night to search and to rescue. To top it off, they’re not even paid to do this.
This is a service they choose to do for their community. They sacrifice a huge amount of time, effort and sometimes even their lives to save the nature-loving people of the Heber Valley and the Wasatch Back.
I met with Captain Kohler and asked him if most of the calls they receive are for assisting visitors to the area — people who are just simply unfamiliar with the territory. His response surprised me. “Some are, but a lot are people who live here… They were under-prepared or overconfident.”
So what can we, as regular outdoor adventurers, do to prepare ourselves if things get dicey?
One important survival habit is to tell someone where you are going and actually go there. According to Kohler, when people diverge from planned locations and timelines it puts them at high risk. If you don’t return home when you said you would and family or friends call 911, SAR will begin searching the location they were given. If the location is incorrect, it will waste valuable time that could be the difference between life and death. With rafting season approaching I wanted to ask Captain Kohler about swift water rescues. He looked at me very seriously and said, “There is no reason to ever not have a life jacket.”
“In the case of white water you’ve got to be prepared for self-rescue. If you’re in a white water situation and you call Search and Rescue, it’s a bad day for somebody,” he explained. He went on to say that nobody comes out of heavy white water unscathed. “Even when we do our trainings, guys come out of that with big bruises on their legs and their backs because of rocks.
“That’s what creates the white water, it’s going over rocks. So you’re pin-balling over rocks and bouncing. Especially without a jacket, at least with a jacket you have a chance to float high and just catch the top of the rocks. In the case of a white water situation the most critical thing is flotation. If somebody is in the water get them flotation. The second thing to figure out is how to get them to safety.”
He explained that they need to get to the riverbank and get out as fast as possible. Depending on how far away from SAR’s facility the incident it is, and when the call is made, it will be a minimum of 10 minutes before a team arrives. While that timetable is incredibly impressive, a person can drown in much less time than that. The next time you plan a fun outdoor activity keep in mind the importance of preparing for the unexpected. This will help keep you safe, your loved ones safe and possibly even our brave volunteers at Search and Rescue safe.
If you would like to learn more about SAR or to make a donation towards SAR training and equipment, please contact Captain Kam Kohler at firstname.lastname@example.org.