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Snowbound Couple Rescued From Fire Tower at Dinosaur National Monument


Dinosaur National Monument includes some beautiful – and rugged terrain, but it's a tough place to get stranded. Photo by Karl Heubaum

A snowbound couple were rescued from a fire tower in Dinosaur National Monument last weekend in an incident that highlights some of the challenges faced by the folks who do search and rescue work.

On Saturday, April 25, 2009, a couple failed to return from an outing to Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge, which adjoins Dinosaur National Monument on the north. They were reported overdue to authorities in Moffat County (Colorado), and and an active search was started on Sunday morning.

Here's a summary of the incident from a park report:

Dave McGhee, the NPS ranger assigned to Lodore, was contacted around 7:30 a.m. [Sunday] and asked to help with the search. McGhee realized that he’d spoken to the couple at Lodore on Saturday at about 1:30 p.m., when they’d asked him about fishing opportunities. This information led searchers to concentrate on river access points. The weather was cold and windy, with wet, heavy snow making road access very difficult.

At about 11 a.m., a dispatcher in Craig received a partial cell phone call and was able to narrow the search to an area on the shoulder of Zenobia Peak, the highest point in the park [at over 9,000 feet].

Ah, it sounds like a lucky break for the search team. At least a very large search area has been narrowed down a bit. Well, not so fast...

A later 911 call from the couple confirmed that they had gotten their truck stuck in deep snow on Zenobia, and that they’d then abandoned the truck and were en route cross-country with their two dogs towards a visible cabin ... some distance above them atop the peak.

High on the list of undesirable situations for searchers is a lost person who won't stay put to be found, especially in bad weather. Unfortunately, some folks are just determined ...

The dispatcher advised them to return to their vehicle and not climb further up the mountain, but the pair elected to continue traveling cross-country towards the unoccupied fire tower. Their vehicle was located at about 3 p.m., and searchers began tracking the couple through snow up to waist deep in near white-out conditions. Meanwhile, the couple reached the fire tower, broke in, started the propane, cooked dinner, and took a nap.

A full-sized four-wheel-drive NPS truck was unable to access the tower due to snow, but Moffat County searchers eventually reached it at about 5 p.m. on ATVs and evacuated the couple and their dogs. They were transferred to the NPS vehicle, transported down the mountain, and treated for mild hypothermia by Maybell Ambulance.

I'll try not to be too hard on this couple, whose names I've omitted from this story, but this situation does provide some insight into why the folks who do search and rescue tend to be prematurely gray.

After reading this report, I spoke by phone with Corporal Todd Wheeler, the Search and Rescue Coordinator for the Moffat County Sheriff's Department. He was able to provide a few more details, while being very gracious in his comments about the couple.

The search involved nine volunteers from Moffat County SAR, two deputies, and a NPS ranger. A quick response was possible because members of the county's SAR team were already in the remote area on an overnight training exercise. Moffat County covers a big chunk of terrain, and the area involved is a long way from town.

There are actually two fire towers visible from the location where the couple's vehicle became stuck, and those structures are about 35 miles apart as the crow flies. The stranded individuals were not familiar enough with the area to identify which of the two "cabins" was their intended destination, and once they announced their plans to head for a tower rather than return to their truck, there was no further cell phone contact with the couple.

That left searchers with two possible destinations, with a lot of rugged country in between—and uncertainty about whether the pair had managed to reach the cabin at all.

Due to the open terrain, searchers encountered deep snow interspersed with areas of bare ground and rock, making tracking more difficult. The couple also bypassed several other cabins during their 3½ mile uphill trek to the fire tower.

The pair does get credit for at least one point: someone "back home" was aware of their trip, and had at least a vague description of their destination, so authorities were notified and began a search sooner rather than later.

The incident also illustrates the pluses of cell phone communication, since the call helped narrow the search area. However, the fact that only a "partial call" was received is a reminder that reliable cell service can't be counted on everywhere—as clearly noted on the website for the park and for the wildlife refuge that was the original destination for the trip.

Due to the remote nature of the Refuge, visitors are encouraged to bring extra supplies including water, food, and fuel in case of emergency. Cell phone coverage is sporadic at best in this area and should not be counted on in times of emergency.

Corporal Wheeler was tactful in his comments during our phone conversation, but he pointed out that a moving target always makes searcher's jobs much more difficult, and this situation would have been resolved sooner if this couple had followed the dispatcher's advice and remained in their vehicle. The added time, distance and elevation required to reach the fire tower in difficult terrain and bad weather increased the risks for both the victims and the searchers.

The good news? There was a successful outcome, thanks to some dedicated rescue personnel—and no small measure of good fortune for the couple involved.


And who gets to pay for this stupidity ??

Taxpayers of America....

Kurt is correct, although in this case, only one NPS ranger and the two county deputies were likely on the payroll. I believe all of those other folks were unpaid volunteers - some of the often unsung heroes of the search and rescue world.

This topic was covered on another thread and I found out that there is overtime pay involved in some search and rescues but other than that all the full time employees are on the payroll and all the equipment is paid for. Part of the job is to do search and rescue, which is usually dangerous, but that is part of the job that you are paid for.

The tax payers pay EVERY DAY for this and other services so none should belly ache when the tax payer utilizes the service.

These people weren’t stupid, they made decisions under the conditions that were not as good as they could have made. Let’s see how Anonymous fares under the same circumstances.

"Unpaid volunteers - some of the often unsung heroes of the search and rescue world." I'll second that.

The debate about who pays for SAR has been raging for too many years. It is and should continue to be, a public service to the tax payers, citizens and visitors of this country that SAR services are provided without cost. Many people who are rescued or recovered (family), end up donating money or equipment to the SAR organization. In the State of Colorado, which Dinosaur NM is in, the State covers all SAR costs through a special hikers tax generated from the sale of recreation gear within the State. If a person does something that is so outragous, unsafe or deliberate, that it results in a rescue, the State or Dinosaur NM can charge the person with a State or Federal criminal violation (such as disorderly conduct) and "recover" costs during the sentencing part of the case.

Let's move on to something more productive, like working on good preventative measures (Preventative SAR programs, public education, trip planning services.

the county, who else?

All valid points I must say. I live in this particular area around Dinosaur NM. I also have a great insight into the problems related to hikers and just all around tourists. It's not so much "bad decisions" as it is being uninformed. People travel from all over the world and have no idea the vast wide open areas here and what dangers are present. It's clear that these folks' destination was the the wildlife refuge and not the national monument. Had they been to a Dinosaur NM visitor station, they may have been more informed. People in general are going to when put in such a situation, do what THEY think they need to do to survive...not what they are told to do. These people were found and brought to safety which is what the SAR program is all about. Yes Moffat County SAR is unpaid volunteers, and that is why they do it so well. Mostly the County suffers the most because if the rescue isn't hunting related, or the person hasn't purchased a basic "hiking license" in which the whole fee goes to Colorado SAR then the search usually goes uncompensated and thats where the peoples tax dollars are used to pay for someones "uninformed decision". Very little ever is there any Criminal Culpability to a lost hiker so it turns into a civil litigation game to be able to be re-paid.

quoting Anonymous: "In the State of Colorado, which Dinosaur NM is in, the State covers all SAR costs through a special hikers tax generated from the sale of recreation gear within the State".
This is not quite accurate.

1. The state does not "cover all SAR costs". In Colorado all mountain SAR teams are volunteers and raise their own funds. They are not supported by the state to the extent inferred in that statement. There is a Search and Rescue Fund adminstered by the state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). This is not state money. Is is money provided through the voluntary purchase of a COSAR card ($3 per year/$12 for 5 years) or through a 25 cent surcharge on hunting and fishing licenses, vessel, snowmobile, and off-highway registrations. 2/3 of the money from COSAR card sales is put in this fund (presumeably the remaining 1/3 is DOLA's share for administrative costs).

In Colorado, county sheriffs have the authority/responsiblity for SAR in their jurisdiction (not the state). The first priority of the fund is to reimburse local Sheriffs for the costs incurred while conducting a search and rescue for a licensed person. Since the sheriff's have working agreements with their local volunteer SAR teams, there is rarely any significant direct cost to the sheriff for most SAR missions. Each year, any remaining monies in the fund can be used to reimburse the local volunteer SAR teams to help pay for training and equipment (team equipment, not personal equipment.) These reimbursements are in the form of a grant, and teams must apply for the grants.

2. It is not a tax nor is it hiker specific. Anyone may purchase the COSAR card and many do to help support the SAR.

3. It is not a tax that generates money "from the sale of recreation gear".

Simply put, people who obtain licenses and permits for hunting, fishing, and operating off-road vehicles pay a 25 cent surcharge and others may volunteer to buy A COSAR card to help fund the SAR Fund. The fund is small and does not cover even a very small percentage of the cost of SAR in Colorado. By far, the largest portion of the cost of SAR is born directly by the SAR teams and the individual contributions of time, equipment, training etc. of the team members.

A common misconception is that the SAR Fund provides "insurance" for the contributors. This is absolutely not the case, nor was the fund ever established for that purpose. Sheriff's have the option to charge for SAR expenses and ocassionally a sheriff is tempted to try when his direct expenses are exceptionally high. I'm not aware of any that were successful, not to mention the uproar that would occur from the sAR community who oppose such action.

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