JUNEAU — Eight members of Juneau Mountain Rescue were roused from their sleep on a recent Saturday with a phone call, text message and email.
“Search and rescue mission for missing hiker, Come to Eagle Crest Lodge Douglas Island now” was all the information the vague dispatch provided.
It was one of the local search-and-rescue group’s monthly drills, but drills in the digital age look a little bit different.
“We’re trying to do more scenario-based training,” said Sarah Morin, a four-year JMR member and a lieutenant in the Coast Guard.
Morin says field exercises are now more realistic and are intended to simulate a real-life scenario. That includes everything from using a new GPS mapping system to checking latitude and longitude coordinates during the search, to using a new communication system to wake up and alert JMR members of the mission.
Previously, broadcasting the message to the search-and-rescue crew of where to meet and what was going on was the responsibility of one person at the top of the phone tree. But Morin said it put too much stress on just one or two persons who had to call everyone and leave messages while also getting themselves ready and out the door to the arranged meeting spot.
Now, all members are notified en masse using Amerilert, an emergency web-based communication system whereby one message can reach hundreds or thousands of people in minutes via PA systems, alert beacons, websites, desktop alerts, social media, blue light call box, email, pagers, cell phones and land lines.
JMR invested in the system last year, Morin said, and used it in a drill for the first time Oct. 22.
One by one, eight members of the team showed up in the parking lot of Eaglecrest Ski Area, backpacks strapped on and ski poles in hand to help with the steep hike up the mountain. They had been given notice Friday that there would be a drill the following day, but were not given a time or location on where to meet until that morning.
An operations manager at the incident command base station in the parking lot informed them a woman had called authorities to report her husband missing. She told them he was supposed to be home 24 hours ago, but there was still no sign of him. He went hiking near the backcountry terrain of the mountain, she said.
The team split up into two groups of four and, with team one leading the way, they began to hike up winding, wet and rugged alpine trails, whooping and hollering to see if anyone responded.
The windchill was low, rain constant and wind high, and periodically they sent down mapping coordinates using a GPS system called Myopia to the operations manager so he could see what terrain they have covered.
About an hour into the hike, they discovered a clue — a mountain bike leaning against a tree. They called it down to the manager using hand radios. After “contacting” the imaginary wife, the manager with a radio set up in the back of his truck reported to the searchers that his bike and helmet were indeed missing from the house, so it probably was the lost hiker’s bike.
By 11 a.m., they located the hiker, who was lying on the ground simulating a back injury that rendered him unable to walk.
Some members immediately climbed back down to go get the “litter” or gurney from the command station in the parking lot, while others stayed with the “lost hiker,” John Parent, a JMR member for the past eight or nine years.
“What’s your name? What day is it? Did you eat anything for breakfast?” were some of the questions they asked him.
“Something’s wrong with my back,” he replied, adding he was having spasms.
In reality, JMR responds this time of year to about one to three calls of missing hikers, JMR president Karl Bausler said. Deer hunting season runs from about Aug. 1 to Dec. 31.
As the hunting season winds down, they will next begin to gear up for snow and avalanche emergencies, he said.
Typically, training consists of studying one topic (searches, avalanches, safety, medical, outdoor emergency care) and incorporating it into a field exercise.
JMR, founded in 1982, has an active roster of about 30 people, with about six to eight relatively new members.
Back up on the mountain, the newbies had a chance to learn how to strap themselves to the litter with rope (to ease some of the burden of lifting) and to work with some of the more seasoned members as a team.
“It was a great experience to see it all in action,” said Adam Rice, a manager at a local zipline company. He joined the team over the summer, and this was his first all-out drill.
“It just seemed like a natural way to use my skills to help the community,” he said.
Mark Gnadt, a new JMR member and the press secretary for the House Democrats, advised newer members of one of the cardinal rules for searchers to remember is to “keep yourself safe first.”
That means having enough food, water and shelter for yourself in case the search takes longer than anticipated. Gnadt packed about 1 liter of water, food for a day, a bivvy bag and tons of extra rope.
“They also have to enjoy going out in bad weather,” Gnadt added.
Parent, with a grin, noted that searchers “never go out looking for someone in blue skies.”
He said by spending time alone on Eaglecrest for a few hours, waiting for the team to find him, he got to be on the other side of the coin. He says he recommends for anyone who gets lost to stay put and build yourself shelter and wait for help to come.
JMR will answer the call, he said.