lt was meant to be a day hike and a good use of a Saturday. A quick perusal of Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area reveals eight hours of strenuous traipsing through the woods takes you up the rocky summit of Santa Fe Baldy and back to your car parked at the ski basin. Unfortunately it began to snow, it got dark and you lost the trail. Fortunately your roommate expected you home and called 911.
From that point, an intricate system of organization is put into play that spans several agencies and involves possibly hundreds of people—a veritable lifeline for anyone lost in the area’s many hiking destinations, including Santa Fe National Forest’s more than 300,000 acres of wilderness.
If you happen to get lost in the Santa Fe area, chances are members of local volunteer search and rescue teams Santa Fe Search and Rescue Group and Atalaya Search & Rescue—two of many organizations throughout the state, including the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s posse, mounted on horseback, that may also be dispatched—will come after you. Chances are, they’ll find you.
“The vast, vast majority of missions, we are successful in the first 24 hours. In those we’re not successful in the first 24 hours, almost always in the next 12,” insurance broker and Santa Fe Search and Rescue member Steve Crawford says. “It’s an extremely rare situation—I think we’ve had several years go by that we found 100 percent of our people—when we don’t find somebody.”
The success rate could be chalked up to an almost militaristic exactitude demanded from the search and rescue protocol, but that would ignore the sheer skill and determination of the searchers and rescuers themselves. It’s they who find you cold and desperate in the Vega Triangle—a term coined by rescuers that refers to La Vega Meadow, an area off of the Windsor Trail notorious for trapping hikers—and bring you home.
SFSAR was started in the ’90s with approximately 10 people. Now there are 55.
“We do summer searching: hiking; winter searching: snow shoes, backcountry skis; we do litter recovery for immobile people,” Paul McClendon, a now retired former SFSAR president, says. The group is also dispatched to search for downed aircraft, once even for pieces of a space shuttle.
Though members vary in age and occupation, a “typical volunteer is someone who likes to hike and loves the outdoors,” financial planner and SFSAR President Ellen Marshall says. Some even became members after they themselves were rescued.
In addition to volunteering their time and equipment, members—whom McClendon calls “all type As”—are expected to attend monthly trainings as often as possible.
ASAR is one of two Mountain Rescue Association certified teams in New Mexico. ASAR is called into missions with every other search and rescue group, but specializes in high-angle technical rescue—think cliffs that looked easier on the way up or mine shafts that should never have been gone down. Members take courses in “rigging for rescue” and specialize in “pick-offs,” wherein a rescuer rappels to a victim, ties the victim to his/her harness and then lowers the victim to the ground.
ASAR currently has 30 members who, according to John Becker, a family practice physician and president of ASAR who has been with the organization for nine years, “tend to range in age from mid to late 20s to a few people in their 60s.” Members are mostly “professionals,” but count six St. John’s College students in their ranks. Volunteers come and go over the years and their number fluctuates, as has the number of missions.
According to both teams, in years past there averaged approximately 30 search and rescue missions. Now there are more like 15 to 18 a year; the rationale for the decline varies.
Marshall and McClendon of SFSAR are certain that cell phones and their expanding service areas have kept family members apprised of hikers’ whereabouts, preventing premature calls to police.
ASAR’s Becker isn’t sold on crediting increased technology like cell phones and GPS for the decline in rescue calls. He suspects “the population is just spending more time sitting in front of TVs and sitting on their butts. There’s less of an emphasis for people [going out into the wilderness] now; they’re just entertained at home.”
Whatever the reasoning and however longingly discussed, the outcome of fewer lost hikers, hunters, skiers and other wilderness goers is a desirable one. But search and rescue volunteers remain steadfast and stand, ever vigilant, ready if and when you need them.
As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure but, when you’re lost, 20/20 hindsight won’t lead you home. Below is a list of tips compiled from the Santa Fe Search and Rescue Group’s website on what to do if you’re hopelessly lost.
• Stay put. This is the hardest advice to follow, but it’s very difficult to find a moving target.
• Send out emergency signals: three whistle blows or shots.
• If possible, make a fire.
• Stay as warm and dry as you can.
• Make and consume warm or hot liquids as circumstances allow.
• If it’s cold or windy, make a very simple shelter. If there is enough snow on the ground, make a snow chair by cutting out blocks with a stick to set up a small, square seating shelter. Pad the floor and seat with pine branches for insulation.