Flood of hikers, protective gear requirements could pose challenges for search-and-rescue teams

The Rocky Mountain Rescue Group is one of the country’s largest all-volunteer search-and-rescue providers. Its protocols for dealing with the coronavirus include wearing surgical masks, long-sleeved shirts, eye protection and gloves.

By MILES HOWARD | Special To The Washington Post | Published: June 25, 2020

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A burning heel was Todd Levin’s first sign that something was wrong. The 33-year-old Los Angeles native was hiking with a friend through the towering sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park in California when the hot sensation began. Levin, a reasonably active guy, tried to walk it off. But soon, every step sparked a jolt of pain that traveled up the back of his leg. Sitting on a log, nursing his foot, contemplating what to do, Levin saw two other hikers approaching. Levin’s friend asked them if they knew anything about medicine. One of the hikers, who happened to be an EMT, looked at Levin’s foot, and delivered alarming news.

“His immediate response was, ‘Yeah, your Achilles’ tendon is about to snap,’ ” Levin recalls. “And if that happened, I would have to get airlifted out of the woods.”

Luckily for Levin, the EMT had a solution. Using a spare latex medical glove and some tape that he fished out of his daypack, he created a splint that stabilized Levin’s ankle. This allowed Levin to walk out of the woods. Six months of physical therapy later, Levin is hiking again, but his Kings Canyon ordeal haunts him.

“If we hadn’t encountered the EMT … if I had kept hiking and my tendon had detached … it could have been very bad,” Levin said. “We didn’t have cellphone reception, so my friend would have needed to leave me there, hike back to the car, and drive somewhere to get help. Meanwhile, I’d just be sitting there alone, in pain, for hours, totally exposed to the weather or any wild animals.”

A lot of hikers get hurt in the backcountry each year. Sometimes, they’re fortunate enough to walk or limp back to their car on their own, like Levin did. But if a hiker snaps an ankle or suffers heat exhaustion and loses the ability to walk out of the wild unassisted, they must find some way to inform local authorities about their predicament. Then the situation becomes a search-and-rescue (SAR) operation: SAR providers — who could be employees of state agencies or local volunteers — organize a rescue party, rustle up the requisite medical gear for the mission, and clomp into the wild to find the injured hiker, treat their injuries and transport them out of the backcountry to the nearest regional hospital.

This year, however, SAR resources are facing two new challenges created by the novel coronavirus.

First, after months of sheltering in place, Americans looking for social distancing activities are flooding trails and parks. Any increase in hikers means an increase in rescues, and SAR providers were already having trouble keeping up with a rise in visitors to public lands that had occurred before the pandemic hit, according to a January report from Outside magazine.

Second, rescues are tougher when they involve dealing with a super-contagious virus. Social distancing during a SAR operation is near-impossible; it’s not uncommon to complete a SAR operation coated with the injured hiker’s exhalations or spattered with some of their blood. That means rescuers will have to wear personal protective equipment. As Drew Hildner, a volunteer medic with Boulder, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Rescue Group puts it, “Imagine hiking strenuously, off-trail, wearing a pack that weighs up to 70 pounds, and a surgical mask.”

Rocky Mountain Rescue Group is one of the country’s largest all-volunteer SAR providers. It’s protocols for dealing with the coronavirus during every SAR dispatch include wearing “surgical masks, long-sleeved shirts, eye protection, and gloves,” Hildner said, adding that if a patient is having respiratory issues or mentions possible exposure to the coronavirus, the SAR team will put on N95 respirators.

In addition, the team has been capping the number of participants on SAR missions to the lowest head count required. This minimizes the number of volunteers who could potentially be exposed to the coronavirus on a SAR operation, which mitigates the risk of Rocky Mountain Rescue losing a significant portion of its volunteer base to self-quarantine.

Hilder is concerned that the discomfort posed by the masks could be the final straw for some SAR volunteers. “We’ve run into points in seasons past where our volunteers experience rescue fatigue,” Hildner said. “By late summer, everyone kind of groans when the pager goes off. We haven’t reached that point yet, but I anticipate that we will this year.”

Given the new stresses SAR operators are facing, hikers should consider how to minimize the risks both to themselves and to potential rescuers, according to Lt. James Kneeland of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which leads SAR operations in tandem with volunteer SAR groups throughout the White Mountain National Forest. Hikers heading into the backcountry should be sure to pack the “Ten Essentials” listed by the National Park Service (sunblock, a flashlight, a first aid kit and additional supplies for minor accidents). But scaling back hiking plans for the duration of the pandemic can mitigate risk considerably.

“The biggest thing we’re preaching during this [pandemic] is that this may be the time to recreate locally, near your house, instead of taking on an epic hike up here in the White Mountains and potentially devastating our SAR resources in short order” by exposing them to the coronavirus, Kneeland said, speaking from the road after finishing the rescue of two hikers who got lost on an 18-mile trail. “I’ve got a district of seven [Fish and Game] officers, so if you take out half my district, I’m in pretty bad shape.”

Rescue providers aren’t likely to abandon injured hikers to the elements, Kneeland said. “You can’t just leave someone there.” But if SAR volunteer groups are running at half-capacity or less, SAR outcomes could be affected. “We’d have to find [SAR volunteer] groups that we weren’t entirely familiar with if we lost our core volunteers,” Kneeland said. “We’d have to bring in resources that weren’t as well-trained to get the mission done.”

Saving the highest peaks for 2021 might leave some hikers feeling crestfallen. But sticking with easier hikes doesn’t have to feel like a compromise. Forty-five minutes down the road from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s White Mountains office is the Mountain Wanderer, a travel bookstore owned by hiking guidebook author Steven D. Smith. His ethos for pandemic hiking during New Hampshire’s lockdown was to “stay local, stay low.” Even as trails reopen, Smith is still enjoying getting reacquainted with the natural wonders tucked away in the nearby lowlands.

“I’ve always been a fan of backcountry ponds. They can be just as rewarding as a summit,” Smith said. “If you go out to some of the more remote waterfalls, you won’t see that many people. Even trails that just go along streams can be wonderful. A nice woods walk, and the sound of the water is with you the whole time.”

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