Search and Rescue In Remote Part Of Spanish Peaks Wilderness
Saturday late afternoon the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and the Big Sky, Hams Radio, and Helicopter groups of the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Division responded to a backcountry search in a remote part of the Spanish Peaks Wilderness. Two 18 year old MSU students were hiking near Gallatin Peak when they left the trail they were on and became disoriented. The students were dressed in shorts and rain jackets. The only emergency equipment they carried were headlamps, water, and cell phones. Stormy weather in the area, including blizzard-like snowfall and heavy lightning, further compounded the danger the students faced.
Ground teams began to head towards the students, but due to the weather and remoteness of the area did not expect to arrive on scene for at least four or five hours. A break in the weather allowed a helicopter to search the area before darkness and further poor weather set in. The helicopter search was unsuccessful in locating the students. Additionally, the students cell phones’ batteries were dying and they were forced by the weather to move from where they had cell phone reception. A communications schedule was arranged with the students to save their cell phone battery power by turning the phones off until an appointed time. However, there was no further communication with them at the next scheduled time.
A ground team eventually located the students walking on a trail near the upper end of Bear Basin. Rescuers escorted the students, who reported being cold, tired, and scratched up but otherwise unharmed, back to their vehicle. The students told rescuers that lightning had been hitting so close to them that they could feel the electricity and that one of them “saw blue” for several seconds. The students stated at one point lightning struck between them. The students also saw the search helicopter several times and tried to get its attention by waving their arms and flashing their headlamps at it.
Sheriff Gootkin would like to remind people going into remote areas of southwest Montana’s backcountry to be prepared for emergencies. The weather, especially in the high country, can change rapidly, and realize that the further you go the longer it will take rescuers to reach you. If you become lost and have summoned help, stay where you are, especially if you are in communication with rescuers. Carry clothes and equipment for changing weather and the possibility of having to shelter overnight. Carry food, water, a means of communication, and navigational aids such as compasses and maps, GPS, or SPOT. Above all, always carry a means to make a fire. A fire’s warmth may be the difference between life and death in an emergency.