Expecting the unexpected

Ron Burtz
With 2020 already a busier than usual year for Custer County Search and Rescue (SAR) and thousands of people crowding the area on a holiday weekend for the July 3 fireworks at Mt. Rushmore, SAR director Rick March was geared up and ready for anything. However, in spite of all that, March said the long weekend turned out to be “fairly quiet.”
March admitted he hates to use the word “quiet” because things can change in an instant, but said “there were no serious incidents or major stressors” this past weekend.
Asked last Thursday what he was expecting during the big weekend, March glibly replied, “the unexpected.” 
He said he was working in coordination with the Custer County Sheriff’s Office and  emergency management coordinator Mike Carter “to have resources so no matter what happens, we’re able to mobilize and get resources where they’re needed in spite of traffic congestion or whatever other problems might crop up.” 
March’s plan was to pre-position volunteers and equipment to be able to respond wherever and whenever needed.
“Our crews are gonna be on standby at various locations and they’re gonna have the ability to get through traffic and whatever it takes to get to where they’re needed,” said March. 
He said, because a large number of people were expected to want to watch the Mr. Rushmore fireworks from the top of Black Elk Peak, he would station over a dozen volunteers  on the Black Elk trail system from early Friday morning to until the trails were all cleared after the display Friday night. 
Even though March was relieved to report on Monday morning that SAR had a fairly quiet weekend, he said that doesn’t translate to a complete absence of calls. 
With a number of volunteers on standby at Black Elk Peak, March kept some SAR members in town in case something came up here or elsewhere in the area. While they did have one call, the situation resolved itself before crews could even make it to SAR headquarters.
March said a 34-year-old woman was hiking from  French Creek Horse Camp in Custer State Park (CSP) to the French Creek Trailhead located just north of the CSP airport where her parents were going to pick her up. When she reached “the Narrows,” however, she found she could only move forward by swimming the creek or hiking “a dicey route up through the rocks,” which March says is “not for the faint of heart.”
With her cell phone battery running low, the woman called her parents, who in turn called 911. Before SAR could be deployed, however,  dispatch received another call saying the woman had found a trail up to Fisherman’s Flats and would be met by her parents there. 
On Saturday, SAR celebrated having gotten through the previous day by having a hamburger cookout at its building. The event was scheduled for 1-5 p.m.
During the event, March received a report of a person suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion at the top of Trail 9 to Black Elk Peak. So two SAR members headed up the trail along with medics. Before they reached the hiker, a storm had moved over and dropped some rain, which helped the situation. After being given some fluids, the hiker was able to walk back down the mountain on his own power. 
As that incident was unfolding, March remembers commenting, “We’re gonna have a pretty good- sized crew on standby and they’ve already been fed.”
That turned out to be a good thing because at about 3 p.m. SAR received another call about a hiker who had reportedly fallen while climbing on rocks near Sylvan Lake. The caller said her hiking companion was missing and had presumably fallen between 30 and 100 feet. 
“In the granite, that’s cause for alarm,” said March. 
Since the crew was already gathered, everyone headed out and searched the area where the man had reportedly fallen, but the search turned up no trace of the man where the woman had last seen him. 
Then, just as a sheriff’s deputy was interviewing the woman as she sat in an ambulance, the missing man walked up to the ambulance looking for her. 
March said the man had been climbing on rocks above the trail when a rain shower passed over, causing the woman to look for cover. When she couldn’t find the man after the shower ended, she called authorities thinking he had fallen. 
March said the man, realizing his danger with rocks possibly becoming slippery, had crawled off the rocks but came down in a different place from where he went up. He made his way back to the vehicle and changed clothes and then went to look for his companion and found her sitting in the ambulance. 
“It was an innocent enough mistake,” said March, adding, “We kind of held our breath Sunday and it worked.”
The heat exhaustion incident Saturday points up the importance of March’s first rule for not becoming the subject of an SAR callout: “Take plenty of water when you go hiking.” 
“We can’t stress that enough,” he said. 
While acknowledging hikers’ desire to travel light and not burden themselves down, March said water is more important than just about any other survival tool a person might carry. 
“If they don’t carry anything else, they probably need to carry water,” said March, adding that not staying hydrated will “get you in trouble quicker than not having a knife.”
A case in point is the 50- 75 people who hiked to the top of Black Elk Peak to watch the fireworks Friday. March said a number of those hikers failed to take enough water, so “our crew ended up passing out a lot of water.” 
Fortunately, in anticipation of that situation, March said his crew had taken extra water to share. 
A corollary to the water rule is March’s second guideline on the list: “assess your own limitations.”
“Most people don’t seem to do a very good job of figuring out that’s really more than I ought to tackle,” said March. “They end up going past what their body can handle.”
Rule No. 3 is: “Make sure your cell phone is working, carry a backup battery and manage power to make sure it lasts the life of the trip.”  
“One thing that gets people in trouble real quick is they don’t carry a flashlight with them,” said March. “It ends up getting dark and they start using the flashlight on the phone which uses up battery in a hurry.”
The importance of phone battery life is underscored by rule No. 4, which is “Use navigational aids on the phone and download trail maps which can be used without cell phone signal.”
March said Google Maps, which most people are familiar with from using while traveling, allows downloading of maps, but he said an app like Avenza Maps is better for off-road travel. “It’s a real robust platform and it operates off of maps you’ve downloaded to your phone,” said March. 
He said SAR calls usually fall into one of two categories, with real rare exceptions.
He said either the hiker loses his way, becomes disoriented and is lost when nightfall comes or because of some medical situation the person goes down and loses mobility. March said following his hiker rules can help avoid both situations. 
As of last Thursday, March said SAR had been called out 28 times since the first of the year, which he said is above normal. He speculates the reason for that high number of calls might be two-fold. 
First, he said the spring weather has been “a little nicer than usual around here. We didn’t have the weeks of overcast and rain we normally get.”
Secondly, “You combine that nicer weather with the fact that people have been essentially under house arrest since mid-March,” he speculated. “I think people who normally don’t get out and get on the trails have done so this year in order to keep social distance.”
With campgrounds doing a brisk business and other outdoor activities being popular this summer, it appears March and his crew may be busy for months to come. 

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