Staying Safe Beyond the Boundaries

first_imgOn Dec. 8, as the sun set over the Whitefish Range, the call went out that there were two snowboarders missing beyond the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort. Within minutes, members of the North Valley Rescue, Flathead Backcountry Nordic Patrol and Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol were mobilized. A few hours later the two snowboarders were found and on their way back to safety. Last week’s incident served as a reminder of the importance of being prepared while exploring the backcountry. It’s also an example of resources available when something goes wrong, according to Brian Heino, Flathead County Search and Rescue coordinator. “We’re really fortunate here in the Flathead Valley because we’ve got North Valley Rescue and Flathead County Search and Rescue, the Flathead Backcountry Nordic Patrol and Two Bear Air,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of resources and not every place is as fortunate as us.” Flathead County Search and Rescue was formed in 1947 after Sheriff Dick Walsh organized a group of volunteers to find a missing boy. After the search ended, Walsh asked the volunteers to leave their contact information in case another search party ever needed to be formed. Since 1950, the search and rescue team, part of the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, has served an important role. In 1970, North Valley Rescue formed to cover the north end of the Flathead and is based in Columbia Falls. About the same time, the Essex Nordic Patrol, which later become the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol, was organized to oversee the cross-country trails around the Izaak Walton Inn. In 1981 it expanded its scope to include all of Flathead County. More recently, in 2011, Two Bear Air was created with the help of Whitefish philanthropist Mike Goguen, who purchased a Bell 407 helicopter to start the non-profit search and rescue air service. Kalispell Regional Medical Center also operates the A.L.E.R.T. Air Ambulance service that serves rural communities throughout Northwest Montana and was the first rural medical air service in the country. Although each service has different goals, it’s common for them to work together. But Heino said search and rescue efforts are successful when the people they are looking for are prepared for the worst. Heino said that anyone venturing into the backcountry, even the terrain that’s just beyond the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort, should bring supplies like food, water, a way to start a fire, some sort of shelter, a signal, basic medical gear and basic navigational tools. “Those things can make the difference in someone making it out alive,” he said. As cell service expands across the remote parts of Northwest Montana, the number of calls the search and rescue team receives has increased. Heino said in the past, Flathead County Search and Rescue would receive anywhere from 125 to 150 calls annually; this year they had hit 150 calls by early December. The advancement of cell phone technology has also made searches easier. Whenever a lost person calls the local 911 dispatcher, emergency officials can “ping” the phone to find its location. With that information, rescuers know where to go. But there is one more key item in being prepared for a backcountry adventure: education and information. Both of those items can be found through the Flathead Avalanche Center, according to director Erich Peitzsch. Throughout the winter, the avalanche center offers backcountry safety classes that are as short as an hour and as long as a weekend. Peitzsch said although more training is always better, even just taking a short course is beneficial if you’re going to be traveling in avalanche country. Though some might believe it’s too early in the season to run into avalanches, Peitzsch said when there is enough snow to ski, there is enough snow to slide. “The hour-long course is a good reminder for folks who have taken training courses before but it’s also good for anyone who hasn’t had any training before,” Peitzsch said. But Peitzsch said education is only one piece of the puzzle and that having the proper gear and getting information about weather and avalanche conditions are also critical before heading out. The best place to get avalanche information is from the center’s own website, Avalanche advisories for the Flathead, Swan and Whitefish ranges as well as parts of Glacier National Park are posted on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the winter. The forecasts are compiled by a team of experts who head into the backcountry multiple times a week to dig snow pits and gather as much information as they can. However, they also rely on observations reported by the public. “Even one small snow pit gives us a lot of information about what’s happening in the area,” he said. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Emaillast_img

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