Backcountry rescue ends happily

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, November 15, 2018

Photo by Frank Pelli
Red Lodge Search and Rescue is often called to respond to rescue disoriented hunters and lost tourists. (Frank Pelli center)

Red Lodge Search and Rescue (SAR) was called to the scene outside Edgar on a snowy Sunday evening, Nov. 12.  It was a common theme-lost or disoriented hunters or tourists in the backcountry. This incident, fortunately, had a happy ending.

The call came in about 6 p.m. to Carbon County Sheriffs Dispatch. “We left about 8,” said, Doug Mackay of SAR.

There were two hunters, a man and a woman, in a party of 6 that went off alone and had gotten disoriented in the Pryors and it was getting cold, barely double digits and falling. Red Lodge already had a few inches of snow.

Frank Pelli, SAR Trainer and SAR team leader said, “It seems every time I have a training session, in fact, just a week ago, I said we still have hunting season, the ski mountain’s opening, don’t think because summer’s over we won’t be seeing any more missions.” 

So six men loaded up the SAR Jeep, the pickup truck, hauled their UTV Pioneer (a five passenger ATV) and another vehicle containing a search dog with guide,  Mark Polakoff, and headed Sunday evening to the Pryors. 

The couple had gone off from another group hunting and did not have their GPS working. According to Mackay that caused some problems at the start. “Incident command was maintaining contact with the lost parties but their battery was slowly dying. They had given us their location from the phone but some phones are deceptive. They ping off cell towers.” It caused difficulties and delays in finding them. Fortunately, it was not snowing in the search area.

According to Pelli, eventually, Incident Commander, Amy Hyfield was in touch and managed to get them to get their GPS working. “There was some struggle with the best way to get out to them. We occasionally get called to a rescue in the Pryors, but we’re not as familiar with that as with the National Forest (Custer Gallatin).” 

Pelli said it was a complex area involving terrain they were not familiar with, private ranches and landowners. “We talked to the Fish and Game Warden,” he continued. "We ended up meeting two Yellowstone County Deputies out there. We touch on as many resources as we can get. There was a ranch hand familiar with the landowners and he knew the land very well. He gave us a good route that allowed us to drive rather than hike a long way.” 

SAR ended up hiking about 2 and one half miles in from where they stopped the vehicles." He noted, “By the time we got there, the ranch hand went on a hunch and ended up driving fairly close and ended up getting them back!” That was around 11:30 p.m. At that point, says Pelli, “we were less than a tenth of a mile away when we got the call they were found and taken to their vehicles.”

“The call came from the Yellowstone Deputies,” said Mackay. They had waited by the couple’s vehicle.  

“The biggest thing was the people were found and found safe,” says Pelli. “It was just a long walk over in the Pryors. We commented as we were walking back that it was lucky it wasn’t snowing there. It would have made things slower.” The missing parties had built a fire but reported to Incident Command they were running low on dry wood. 

“There’s some really rough terrain, up and down,” said Pelli. “Long distance views are a difficult thing.” 

Neither he nor Mackay heard the rifles the couple were shooting off. Mackay said, “We were still quite a ways. We’ve had that experience before on the ski mountain area when you get a phone location you can be a mile off.”

“A couple of times I saw lights and thought they might be their flashlights,” said Pelli, “but they did not materialize.”

He resorted to the old school way of communication. “I’m a little hoarse today from yelling!” 

Strangely enough, the couple did see their rescuers lights although they couldn’t be seen. “They were in contact with Hyfield,” said Pelli. “They said they saw our lights.”

The parties were dressed warmly, had headlights and had matches. They had a fire going. Pelli “felt pretty confident they would be ok while we searched.”  But the temperature was dropping quickly after 1 a.m. and the men were happy the couple was located. 

Pelli arrived home about 2:30 a.m. the next morning, Mackay, about 3. 

Both men warn future hunters and hikers to prepare as if they would be lost or kept out unexpectedly overnight. “It’s important when people go out they go well prepared for possibly getting lost, stuck in back country,” says Pelli. “Food, shelter, warmth! Good clothes, energy food, bivys (bivouac shelters) can weigh nothing to throw in your pack, a signaling device, a light such as a headlight, matches to start a fire, GPS or ideally a personal locator beacon. Many phone apps offer mapping.”

Mackay said the other hunters had their own personal locator beacon, a Garmin inReach with satellite navigation. It can weigh “a mere 4.23 oz, and provides global messaging and interactive SOS plus basic GPS and compass page navigation” according to its website. Running between $300 and $400 it provides precise location. It has a mapshare feature where you can allow others to track you as well. 

Mackay said, “I don’t want to go anywhere without my backpack. My wife wants me to have it.” In it, he carries his own Garmin inReach as do some of the other SAR team members. “There are three at SAR that can be borrowed.”

“I don’t even go on a day hike (without a pack) so if I broke my ankle I could hunker down and stay more than a day,” said Pelli. 

Pelli said that the last few years the mission numbers seemed to drop-but then this summer was more active than ever. “One day we had three missions!” In one month this summer, they had six. “So I don’t say that anymore.” 


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The Carbon County News

Street Address:

11 N. Broadway, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 970, Red Lodge, MT 59068

Phone: 406-446-2222

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