Jackson Hole’s backcountry heroes

10 May 2023

Volunteers complete rigorous training to join competitive search and rescue team

Winter/Spring 22-23

Written By: Lexey Wauters | Images: David Bowers and courtesy Teton County Search and Rescue

The history of travel in wilderness is chock full of stories of when things went wrong. It is just as full of epic accounts of heroic rescue teams, and today’s backcountry first responders are every bit as courageous.

Teton County Search and Rescue (TCSAR) Wyoming, an arm of the Teton County Sheriff’s office, is an all-volunteer team that respond — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year — to those in need in the backcountry.

When it first started, it was a bit of a “ragtag operation,” volunteer Carol Viau recalls of the early days. “Gear was everywhere. It was in our cars, our garages, under our beds. We had a storage unit south of town where we kept the big stuff.”

Carol, a volunteer since 2000, is one of the most senior members of the team. “There was, and is, a lot of commitment to being the best possible. We’re on call all the time, and we often miss things we had hoped to do, so we make those sacrifices to help others.” Carol observes that since the hanger, TCSAR’s current headquarters, opened, response times are quicker, location travel can be more organized, and the teams have better support. “Of course, having access to a helicopter [sometimes] makes a big difference!” she laughs.

Anthony Stevens, a member since 2015, describes TCSAR as a “group of bad-asses.” Growing up in the area, “If you were dabbling in the backcountry, you wanted to know these guys — you wanted to be these guys!” he remembers.

Becoming one of the team is very competitive now. Guided by a Board of Advisors, TCSAR will only periodically open applications for a class of new recruits, and dozens of applications are received for limited spots. Once an offer of membership is given, the work really starts. On probation for a year, recruits train fiercely in the many disciplines they need to be productive contributors — swiftwater rescue, avalanche rescue, lost person search, wilderness emergency medicine, and backcountry skiing and snowmobile rescue are just some. Response teams are carefully crafted to take advantage of members’ skills and experience.

Both Carol and Anthony emphasize the importance of the team culture in TCSAR’s success. “There is no such thing as a low-priority assignment,” Anthony states. “Getting and delivering the sandwiches is just as important as being on-site digging in an avalanche.”

”Humility is an important trait,” Carol adds. “We all recognize each other’s strengths. And just as importantly, our own weaknesses. And we train for both, a lot!”

Anthony is currently TCSAR’s training advisor. The team trains together once a month and has opportunities to gain more training in specialized areas. The hard skills — such as swift-water rescue or high-angle evacuations — are critical and fun to learn. However, Anthony cautions, “that’s not all of it. There is a very human side to a rescue. There is the victim, but there are also friends, family members, bystanders — there are a lot of people to be managed.”

There are also group dynamics within teams, Carol adds. “Recognizing and understanding those dynamics around decision making is how we stay out of trouble.”

With the interest in backcountry activities growing, so are the number of backcountry incidents. TCSAR is on track to have their busiest year ever with over 100 callouts and 71 incidents with teams in the field in 2022. So far, the 40-person TCSAR team is meeting the increased calls successfully. But will there be a level of demand that will outstrip capacity? Both Carol and Anthony admit there probably is. Some of the organization’s current initiatives — notably the effort to purchase a helicopter to permanently have onsite — will help meet those needs. Other further-forward options are in discussion.

“Our biggest worry is someone in need won’t call because they are embarrassed,” Anthony says.

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