Amid Covid-19 crisis, novice wilderness explorers are straining rescue resources

PINEDALE, WYOMING (NYTIMES) – Ms Kenna Tanner and her team can list the cases from memory: There was the woman who got tired and did not feel like finishing her hike; the campers, in shorts during a blizzard; the base jumper, misjudging his leap from a treacherous granite cliff face; the ill-equipped snowmobiler, buried up to his neck in an avalanche.

All of them were pulled by Ms Tanner and the Tip Top Search and Rescue crew from the rugged Wind River mountain range in the last year, in this sprawling, remote pocket of western Wyoming. And all of them, their rescuers said, were wildly unprepared for the brutal backcountry in which they were travelling.

“It is super frustrating,” said Ms Tanner, Tip Top’s director. “We just wish that people respected the risk.”

In 2020, the team responded to 44 of them, many that resulted purely from inexperience in the backcountry. Such rescues have drained the small group of dedicated members who lead the team, Ms Tanner said.

In the throes of a pandemic that has made the indoors inherently dangerous, tens of thousands more Americans than usual have flocked outdoors, fleeing crowded cities for national parks and the public lands around them.

But as these hordes of inexperienced adventurers explore the treacherous terrain of the backcountry, many inevitably call for help. It has strained the patchwork, volunteer-based search-and-rescue system in America’s West.

Such operations within the parks are handled by the National Park Service. Outside those boundaries, search-and-rescue missions fall to volunteer groups like Tip Top, which since 1980 has policed the harrowing Wind River mountain range, about an hour southeast of the city of Jackson.

After decades as a well-kept wilderness secret, reserved for only the most experienced outdoor enthusiasts, a pandemic-era mainstream has now discovered this rugged stretch of Wyoming.

“They come here and they’re like, ‘it’s beautiful, it’s a big open space’. And it is,” said Tip Top volunteer Lesta Erickson. “But it’s also dangerous.”

Slicing southeast across the Continental Divide, the Winds – as the range is known locally – are the Grand Tetons’ more remote, inaccessible sister.

In a trend reflective of wilderness areas across the West, out-of-staters have pushed deep into remote areas like Sublette County and the Winds, searching for a chance to get outside their homes while still social distancing. With offices embracing remote work, treks to remote areas seem more viable.

The influx has accelerated a trend that search-and-rescue professionals say was already underway in places like the Winds.

Garmin inReach devices – satellite-powered beacons that can ping emergency dispatchers in the event of problems – have grown popular and have given many aspiring hikers false senses of security. And social media posts and location tags have made remote areas of the backcountry appear easy to reach.

“They think, ‘all I’ve got to do is hit this button and help is going to be there immediately’,” said Mr Milford Lockwood, a Tip Top volunteer who helps lead helicopter rescues.

In reality, hikers in distress could be 20 miles (32km) from the nearest trailhead or in an area that is inaccessible by helicopter, he said. It has become so crowded in the backcountry that it is sometimes difficult to even find a place for the aircraft to land.

For years, outdoors enthusiasts have warned that America’s search-and-rescue system was in trouble. Where places like Canada or Switzerland have professional, full-time teams that manage everything from lost tourists to fatal mountaineering accidents, most operations in the United States are handled by a loose network of volunteer organisations like Tip Top, which are overseen by local sheriffs.

Some search-and-rescue groups are subsidised by federal and state funds, while others have a robust network of philanthropic donors. In Wyoming, the groups are funded by their respective counties and are financially buoyed in part by donations attached to hunting, fishing and recreational vehicle licences.

Facing a crisis, some states now charge for rescues made necessary because of negligence.

No one expects the eventual end of the pandemic to stem the flood of newcomers to the Winds, which people grudgingly admit have been discovered.

“You can’t stop it,” said Mr Chris Hayes, who works at an outdoor retailer in Pinedale and also runs a fishing guide service. “There’s no secret place anymore. They’re all gone.”