By Lt. Robert McDonald
Search And Rescue (SAR) missions are on the rise in New Mexico. Statewide, SAR missions are the highest since 2005, with 37 missions in the first quarter of this year. In the southwest corner of the state, the seven missions to date now exceed last year’s total. All of these were within the boundaries of the Gila National Forest or close to it.
Why the surge in 2012? While SAR missions are sometimes cyclical, some believe that last year’s large wild land fires in New Mexico and Arizona may have deterred the number of visitors to national forests. Likewise, the increase of SAR missions this year may be attributed, in part, to an increase in visitors since wildfires in the Southwest have been minimal in comparison to this same time period last year.
Three recent missions help illustrate some of the common reasons why people become the subjects of SAR missions.
In February, a 41-year-old female checked herself out of a hospital and told her family she was going to Florida. Instead, she hiked up a trail in the eastern region of the Gila NF and set up camp with little food.
Once SAR was initiated, the subject was quickly found, lying in a sleeping bag off a trail near a creek, extremely weak, but conscious. While this case is not a classic example, injury and illness often result from people underestimating the difficulties of the back country or pushing themselves beyond their normal limits. Hiking distances beyond one’s abilities, not allowing time to adjust to higher altitudes, and overestimating elevation gains can all lead to being subject of a rescue.
In late March, a 58-year-old male (nationally known as an ultra-marathon runner) went for a 12-mile run on trails in the Gila Wilderness without telling anyone where he was going. During his run, he suffered heart failure and died. His body was found five days later in a creek bed off the regular trails.
It is recommended for recreationists to always leave an itinerary with family and/or friends, and to follow the planned route. In this manner, subjects of SAR missions are found much sooner, saving family and friends worry and concern.
In early April, three kayakers set out to paddle a 35-mile stretch of the Gila River with low water flow. Expecting to complete their trip in 24 hours and wanting to travel light, little gear or food was brought. When they failed to come out as expected, a search was launched, although the kayakers finally came out on their own; cold, tired and hungry.
While every SAR mission is different, according to SAR Field Coordinator Marc Levesque, these three incidents point out how people can avoid becoming the subject of a SAR mission:
•Do your homework. Pouring over trail maps, reading guidebooks, and talking with rangers and others familiar with an area will help a back country traveler understand current trail conditions, water levels, elevation gains, and distances to be covered. Many who find themselves the subject of a search have failed to take into account one or more of these factors.
•Leave an itinerary with someone and don’t deviate from it. Also provide a check in time with a small buffer, so that even if you are a little late, a search will not be initiated prematurely.
“Starting a SAR mission without knowing what trail a subject has taken greatly increases the size of a search area and the uncertainty to the SAR planning process” says Brian Fuller, another SAR field coordinator.
•Don’t overextend yourself. If you feel yourself getting tired or becoming ill, cancel the rest of the hike and turn around. Many hikers, especially those who come from lower elevations, are often unaware of the effects of the higher altitudes that the Gila region will have on their body. Others push themselves into trouble by attempting to complete a route they had been planning to do during their once-a-year vacation.
Under New Mexico law, the New Mexico State Police is charged with initiating and managing SAR missions within New Mexico regardless of land ownership. Field operators are conducted by volunteers who provide their own personal equipment and devote thousands of hours in training and annual SAR missions. Often these volunteers work in close cooperation with personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, New Mexico National Guard and the U.S. Border Patrol.
To help avoid becoming the subject of an SAR mission, John Kramer, Wilderness Specialist with the Gila National Forest, and the New Mexico State Police Search & Rescue say back country travelers should do the following before taking any trip into the wilderness:
•Weather: Always check the weather reports and be aware of the forecast, especially in the winter. Be sure to get a forecast for the actual area you plan to travel in.
•Check ahead: Contact the local ranger district office during the weekday to obtain current road and trail conditions, and for information on possible fire restrictions or active wildfires.
•Map and Compass: Bring a map and compass or a GPS unit and know how to use then before you go on your trip.
•Itinerary: Have an itinerary and stick with it. Leave a copy with family or friend and another copy in your vehicle.
•Clothing: Some days are like summer, and other are like winter. Dress in layers and be prepared to change.
•Water: Pack enough water and stay hydrated. Be sure to have an appropriate water filter if you intend to re-supply from a river or stream.
•Physical shape: Know your body’s limits. Don’t start a trail you are not sure you can finish.
•Tools: Make sure your vehicle’s spare tire is inflated and bring a shovel or any other tools you might need in an emergency.
•Cell phones: Cell phone coverage is extremely limited throughout most national forests, especially in wilderness areas. Do not rely on them to get you out of trouble.
•Common sense: Trust your instincts. It’s better to be safe than sorry!