With Glacier National Park and thousands of other peaks and hiking trails surrounding the area, the Flathead Valley sees a hoard of visitors each summer. Some come prepared for mountains and others, well let’s just say this isn’t Central Park.
It’s not all mountain climbing and dangling from ropes, Search and Rescue in Flathead County responds to a variety of calls. It could be boaters stuck on the lake, injured hikers on a back country trail, a lost child or a senior with dementia. Sometimes though it really is a mountain rescue.
Early summer in the Flathead is beautiful. The valley days are warm, the nights cool. The sun doesn’t set until well into the evening. The tops of the mountains are probably still coated with last winter’s snow. It’s a great time to visit and explore. That’s what the family from New York’s Manhattan thought.
A hike in the mountains on a warm afternoon, what could go wrong?
The Jewel Basin hiking area is a pristine area of the Swam Mountains on the east side of the Flathead Valley. These aren’t the tallest mountains in the west, Mt. Aneas tops them out at a little over 7,500 feet. What they lack in size they make up in grandeur and wildness. You are just as likely to see bears and mountain goats as you are other hikers.
On this warm summer afternoon, the visitors from New York decided to try the trails in Jewel Basin. They left their car at the Camp Misery trailhead. (That should have been a hint!). From there they hiked up and up. At about eight that evening, just as dark was setting in, the 911 dispatch center received a call. One of the hikers had fallen, hit her head on the rocks, and was bleeding. She needed help.
In Manhattan, help is likely only minutes away. Not so here. The Valley is lucky to have a fully equipped rescue helicopter whose operation is funded, interestingly enough, through a donation from another New Yorker who has a vacation house in the area. As versatile as the helicopter is, it has its limits. One of them is high winds. The warm, calm summer day in the valley had turned into a windy, temperature dropping experience on the mountains. The helicopter was able to pick up the injured hiker with its winch, the area being too steep for them to land, but would not be able to pick up the other four. Their rescue would have to be the old-fashioned way… search and rescue on foot.
By the time the rescue team found them it was dark. The summer day had turned into a cold- below freezing - summer night on the mountain tops. The team decided the hikers, in their short pants and sneakers, weren’t equipped for the hike down the now icy slopes. They would have to spend the night.
When we go into the mountains each team member carries a 24-hour pack in case it’s necessary to spend the night. We rarely need to use the pack and, sometimes, it seems like overkill. Not tonight. This night the team pooled their resources and shared extra clothing with the now very cold, almost hypothermic, hikers. They settled in for a long night.
The next morning the wind had died down and the helicopter came back and picked up the remaining hikers. The rescue team would have to collect their gear and walk down. No ride for them.
The volunteer team was tired and elated. Maybe those days of training hadn’t been a waste of time. There is no doubt that if they hadn’t responded with the right skills and the correct equipment the rescue would have been a recovery.
We never did hear from the family from Manhattan. I assume they got on a plane and flew home with a story and, perhaps, a little insight into the mountains.