Pandemic wilderness explorers are straining search and rescue
PINEDALE, Wyoming — Kenna Tanner and her team can list the cases from memory: There was the woman who got tired and did not feel like finishing her hike; the campers, in shorts during a blizzard; the base jumper, misjudging his leap from a treacherous granite cliff face; the ill-equipped snowmobiler, buried up to his neck in an avalanche.
All of them were pulled by Tanner and the Tip Top Search and Rescue crew from the rugged Wind River mountain range in the last year, in this sprawling, remote pocket of western Wyoming. And all of them, their rescuers said, were wildly unprepared for the brutal backcountry in which they were traveling.
“It is super frustrating,” said Tanner, Tip Top’s director. “We just wish that people respected the risk.”
In the throes of a pandemic that has made the indoors inherently dangerous, tens of thousands more Americans than usual have flocked outdoors, fleeing crowded cities for national parks and the public lands around them. But as these hordes of inexperienced adventurers explore the treacherous terrain of the backcountry, many inevitably call for help. It has strained the patchwork, volunteer-based search-and-rescue system in America’s West.
Such operations within the parks are handled by the National Park Service. Outside those boundaries, search-and-rescue missions fall to volunteer groups like Tip Top, which since 1980 has policed the harrowing Wind River mountain range, about an hour southeast of Jackson. After decades as a well-kept wilderness secret, reserved for only the most experienced outdoor enthusiasts, a pandemic-era mainstream has now discovered this rugged stretch of Wyoming.
“They come here and they’re like, ‘It’s beautiful, it’s a big open space.’ And it is,” Lesta Erickson, a Tip Top volunteer, said. “But it’s also dangerous.”
False sense of security
Slicing southeast across the Continental Divide, the Winds — as the range is known locally — are the Grand Tetons’ more remote, inaccessible sister. Where the infrastructure of Jackson and the national park offer direct, if difficult, routes to access those mountains, much of the Wind River Range is at least a daylong hike away from the nearest entry points, mostly through the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
“It’s the last of its kind,” Conor Raney said of the range. Raney, a native of Sublette County, spends his summers picking up trash in the Winds, which he says is one of the few places left in Wyoming that allows for solitude.
It is exactly the sort of place to which locked-down Americans have flocked during the coronavirus pandemic. In a trend reflective of wilderness areas across the West, out-of-staters have pushed deep into remote areas like Sublette County and the Winds, searching for a chance to get outside their homes while still social distancing. With offices embracing remote work, treks to remote areas seem more viable.
The influx has accelerated a trend that search-and-rescue professionals say was already underway in places like the Winds. Garmin inReach devices — satellite-powered beacons that can ping emergency dispatchers in the event of problems — have grown popular and have given many aspiring hikers false senses of security. And social media posts and location tags have made remote areas of the backcountry appear easy to reach.
“They think, ‘All I’ve got to do is hit this button and help is going to be there immediately,’” said Milford Lockwood, a Tip Top volunteer who helps lead helicopter rescues. “They see too many television shows that glamorize it, that’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll be there in a minute.’”
In reality, he said, hikers in distress could be 20 miles from the nearest trailhead or in an area that is inaccessible by helicopter. It has become so crowded in the backcountry that it is sometimes difficult to even find a place for the aircraft to land, he said.
The evidence of inexperience is there, in ways big and small: Discarded trash that out-of-town hikers do not pack out; emergency beacons pressed accidentally; piles of human excrement along trails, improperly buried.
Kari Hull, a resident of the area and an avid hiker, said she had to constantly watch her young children on the trails to ensure they do not stumble on used toilet paper or other waste.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said, acknowledging that the crowds have made it safer to hike alone. But, she added, “I don’t want to feel like I’m in a Target toy aisle in December.”