Looking down on a 12,000-foot peak through the gaping side of a helicopter, I breathe the coldest, thinnest air I have ever breathed. Somewhere out there, three hikers and a dog are willing us to see them, to spot their molecule of color on Mount Charleston’s miles of November snow and shadow. Clouds menace, driven by icy winds that pummel our 1973 “Huey” like it’s a plastic toy. But the pilots keep circling. Nobody blinks.
“There!” I scream. Perched in the Huey’s open door, legs dangling, Officer Adrian Crandall nods. He knows. So do the pilots and the pair of rescue volunteers preparing to step from the sky onto the side of a mountain. They are calm and focused, internalizing the rush of finding the needle in the haystack, the anticipation of reaching out a hand to save a life.
That morning at Red Rock, my plan didn’t involve flying over the Valley at 115 miles per hour. I was there to observe a skills test, one of the bi-monthly exercises that keeps the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Search and Rescue Unit sharp. Sergeant Gavin Vesp welcomed the mountain rescue volunteers—the veteran Red Shirts and newly recruited Yellow Shirts. They’re the bulk of SAR, supported by dive and logistics teams, medical specialists and elite police pilots and directed by a core staff of seven Metro officers and the sergeant. From high-angle rope work and helicopter hoists to desert survival and tracking, that’s a lot of skill packed into a team of 65 people on call all day, every day.
- 2011 Rescue Stats
- Missions: 133
- Injuries: 67
- Fatalities: 17
- Overview: The majority of injuries happened to hikers, followed by ATV riders, climbers and mountain bikers. The causes of fatalities included drowning, impact from a fall, ATV accident, helicopter crash and suicide.
“It’s an important job. It’s a serious job. And it can be a very dangerous job,” Vesp said. He laid out the day’s challenges, from a timed six-miler in full rescue gear to a review of essential knots. “Use the honor system,” he said. “If I can’t trust you to tell me your correct time I sure as hell can’t trust you to hold a rope as I’m stepping over a cliff.”
The Yellow Shirts took off down the trail, eager to prove themselves. The Red Shirts cycled through tests on rappelling and ascending, patient packaging, anchors, hardware and haul systems, congregating afterward to pack rope and scheme about bringing the cardboard cutout of “Sarge” to a wedding. They shared stories about memorable missions, including a cliffed-out climber they found wearing a trench coat, a Mexican blanket and samurai swords. Some of the people SAR helps are just stuck or lost, but there's a reason everyone on the team is certified as an EMT. In their day jobs, the volunteers run the gamut—fireman, insurance agent, neurosurgeon, personal trainer, technical operations manager. They don’t get paid for this. They’re here because they love it.
Just as the Red Shirts were about to start their training run, Vesp got the call about the hikers stranded near Charleston’s summit, one with a badly injured ankle. They had a tent, but the weather was turning. About 20 minutes later I was in the Huey, the artificial horizon tilting with the real one.
“Some people are going to die. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is.” SAR Officer Gary Sumption says this to every Yellow Shirt, hoping they’ll understand that there’s only so much anyone can do, and that their own lives are precious.
With almost three decades of experience—nine years as a volunteer and 19 as an officer—Sumption is the resident guru. He predates SAR in its current form, back to 1979 when the group was known as the Jeep Posse, a fraternal organization started in the ’50s, independently funded and governed but under the auspices of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department. The jeeps were commissioned black-and-whites, and the posse had law enforcement powers as reservists on the force. The department was already pushing for more control when a training exercise went south in 1986.
Sumption and another volunteer were with a police sergeant practicing rappelling from a helicopter when it crashed. Everyone survived, but the incident ultimately led to the dismantling of the Jeep Posse. It wasn’t pretty. Of the 25 or so volunteers, Sumption and three others were the only ones who stayed when the department founded SAR in 1987, and he has outlasted everyone. The 58-year-old will retire next spring, and he smiles at the prospect of riding Harleys across the country with his wife, Shelley, a former flight nurse he met while trying to save a kid who fell off a waterfall.
“These two kids had gone hiking in Icebox Canyon, and they were trying to climb above this waterfall using a piece of thin rope, like a cotton clothesline. It was January or February so it was way cold. Water was running, and freezing. This kid had gotten maybe 20 feet up, lost his grip, fell, hit the ground at the bottom of the waterfall and blew up his knee, just basically exploded it,” Sumption says.
The victim was in danger of dying from hypothermia, prompting a call to Valley Hospital’s air ambulance service Flight for Life. Shelley stepped off the helicopter, and when Sumption tried to help her up an embankment she slapped his hand away. Then she did something even more outrageous. “This kid is so shut down he’s got no veins. He’s clamped off, shunting core. But she starts a line in this guy, and it flows and it’s in the right place, with the spray from the waterfall flying past her,” he says. “She’s something.”
The boy survived. But just as clear in Sumption’s memory is the face of a young Englishman who didn’t. While climbing at Red Rock, he fell off a pitch and landed on his head. The British embassy got involved in the investigation of his death, which ended with an intimate meeting between Sumption and the victim’s family.
“They wanted to see where their son died and what happened, and they wanted to talk to the people who were with him when he passed away,” Sumption says. “He’s the only one out of all these years that I’ve lost.”
Some people are gone before SAR arrives, like the passengers on the tourist helicopter that crashed at Lake Mead this month. Sometimes the rescuers are the ones who don’t make it back. Sumption mentions a handful of friends, from an officer caught in an avalanche during a drill to a nurse who went down on a rescue flight. That’s why he’s so adamant that new recruits fight the instinct to leap without looking, and that the public try to appreciate the nuances of risk—even when their emotions tell them otherwise.
“Everybody in SAR becomes one simply by the product of what they’re accomplishing, but there’s no room for people who start out trying to be heroes. … You need to know, not hope, that the people you’re working with know what they’re doing and know when to quit.”
One of the hikers waves as we pass overhead. The Huey is too big to one-skid near the tent, so the pilots shoot for a clearing on the sunny side of Charleston. But the wind is brutal. Every time we get close it knocks us back, and stabilization is engaging with a hiss no one has heard before, including the pilots. They try every angle. Crandall says the hikers are secure, that the team can regroup and return in a smaller craft and a potentially friendlier window of weather. Everyone agrees. I’m sure the hikers know we’ll be back, but I can’t imagine watching the angel of mercy leave without you.
Weeks later in Vesp’s office inside the SAR hangar at the North Las Vegas Airport, Officer Steve Hammack talks about how tough it is to turn back. He wasn’t flying that day, but he’s been there, in that place where admitting defeat is the only option.
“One thing that we really can’t go past is the aircraft’s limits,” he says. "If we only have so much power available, for us to go in there and exceed that limit intentionally is just asking for trouble.”
Hammack is one of six pilots on Metro’s rescue crew, which Vesp says is among the best in the world. Applicants must have 2,000 flight hours just to be considered, and their skills are field-tested by rough weather, darkness, narrow canyons and makeshift landing zones that can be nothing more than sandbars or outcroppings of rock.
“We do, on a fairly regular basis, take it right to that line, where it’s everything that each person has—everything the pilot can do to hold it there, everything the aircraft can do to get in there and everything these guys can do to get down there and back in,” Hammack says.
Vesp breaks down a recent rescue, illustrating the vital nature of air support and the danger of our deceptively mild climate. It was one of those spring days that starts out sunny and ends in a torrent of freezing rain. Two climbers got caught in it, managing to self-rescue to the base of the climb but too hypothermic to hike the 20 minutes to their car. Even after attempts to warm her at the pick-up site and in the ambulance, the woman’s core body temperature was 73 degrees when she reached the hospital.
“They would have passed away that night up on the mountain if the pilots weren’t willing to fly in the weather they flew in,” Vesp says. “I trust these guys emphatically. I trust them with my life.”
SAR is all about trust. The pilots trust the mechanics to keep the ships running at a “Ferrari level.” The officers and volunteers trust the pilots to deliver them safely. The officers trust the volunteers to execute the plan flawlessly. And the hikers, climbers, cavers, bikers, boaters and ATV riders trust that when they call for help, that call will be answered.
The problem is, most calls are more like fragments—coordinates from a beacon; a family member with a couple of clues; a vehicle left at a trailhead; bits and pieces of a distress call to 9-1-1. And then there’s Mother Nature. Help will always come, but it isn’t always immediate.
“Here you are in desperate need, in your mind thinking you’re freezing to death. You see the helicopter almost a stone’s throw from you; you see all the lights down in the parking lot, everybody arriving. And then you see everybody leave. It’s gotta be demoralizing,” Vesp says, insisting that decisions to wait or pull back are based firmly in reality.
He recalls the first attempt SAR made to rescue Greg Rudowsky, a seasoned mountaineer who hiked Charleston with his dog Tiki a few weeks ago and got trapped in a major snowstorm. With a text-equipped location device, he sent a message that he was secure but needed help.
“We’re trying to hike 12 miles in basically a blizzard in thigh-high snow, and I had to ask, is this realistic for what we think is going to be a guy in his tent reading a book, waiting out the weather? ... You make decisions, and you hope that the decisions you make are right. Because the reality is maybe he wasn’t in his tent; maybe he was laying out in a snow bank freezing to death,” Vesp says. “Even if he was, we still were doing everything we could, and the reality was we weren’t going to get to him that night.”
Rudowsky was reading. He and Tiki were holed up with a Dean Koontz paperback, warm and with plenty of water but down to two Fig Newtons. Even if his locator didn’t work, he knew his wife Robin would send help. But after two days in the relentless blizzard, the 61-year-old New Yorker started strategizing for the worst-case scenario.
“As soon as the tent lit up finally, when some sun came through, within 10 minutes I heard the helicopter,” Rudowsky tells me, adding that by the time they reached the airport the mountain was “whited out.” The weather was so unstable his gear got left behind, but SAR went back a week later and rescued it, too.
In the 8,000 square miles covered by Las Vegas SAR, calls for help tend to bottleneck in spring and fall, between really hot and really cold. Most are fielded by 9-1-1 dispatch, though a few come directly from park rangers who’ve been alerted to trouble. When the details reach Vesp, he assesses and plans according to all kinds of variables, from the severity of an injury to the technical aspects of a landscape. The officers are dispatched as quickly as possible, and if any volunteers are needed, all of them get called.
The unit’s jurisdiction is Clark County, which pays for every rescue. That includes the Nevada side of Lake Mead, but Kristin Edholm’s most memorable rescue happened on the other side.
- Give back
- Interested in volunteering? Search and Rescue recruitment is closed for now, but those who want to be considered in the next round can submit an interest form online. As most rescuers are unpaid volunteers, SAR accepts tax-deductible donations from the public. Donate or submit your interest form at lvmpdsar.blogspot.com.
Edholm was the very first Yellow Shirt when the designation started almost a decade ago. Of the 15 recruits who made it through the rigorous physical and interview to basic training, she was the only one invited to join the unit. She remembers the nerves on her first mission, her headlamp blazing in broad daylight and an upside-down IV bag in her hands. Today, she is the most senior mountain rescue volunteer, the rock.
The Lake Mead mission was the third that day. She was working a Weekend Readiness Shift, an opportunity for volunteers to spend time at the hangar and catch calls with the officers.
“I arrived in the morning, and as soon as I parked the car one of the officers came in hot,” she says. They drove “code” (lights and sirens) to Blue Diamond, where they bandaged a mountain biker’s blown knee, administered IV fluids and got him on an air ambulance. About 30 minutes later they responded to reports of a Cessna crash-landing on Rancho. No one was hurt, but 10 minutes later they got another call. This one was desperate, and it was from another state.
“An 8-year-old girl who was hiking near Lake Mead on the Arizona side had fallen off the trail and landed maybe 150 feet down,” Edholm says. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service rescuers made several attempts to reach the girl, but the wind was severe, and their chopper ran low on fuel. “Somebody had already gotten close enough to her to know that she was still alive, so that’s how we got called in. It was one of those things where we needed to get her out and get her out fast,” Edholm says. “So they lowered me down to this girl, and she was sick. She was really sick. Her head was cracked open.”
An air ambulance had been cancelled due to another emergency call, but the girl was in the kind of shape that couldn’t wait. So the SAR helicopter made a rare landing on the roof of University Medical Center, and the crew saw their patient all the way to the ER. She lived.
“We always get to them,” Edholm says. “The outcome is a matter of time and timing.”
It may be a single decision that sends you down “a very ugly trail.” The rescued, Vesp says, typically are good people with good intentions, maybe at the wrong place at the wrong time, a little naive or overconfident. Then there are those who make choices that defy reason. Some get away with it; Sumption, who has rescued the same person twice, says God watches out for fools. But the unlucky ones end up on the news, tragic cautionary tales that remind the rest of us to bring extra water, check the weather and leave a note. From the experienced outdoorsmen who engage in activities with inherent risk to the day-trippers who don’t appreciate their own limits, everyone is happy to see the SAR logo on the belly of an incoming helicopter.
“The moment they come in the door on the hook after a hoist, their eyeballs are usually completely wide open and they look terrified,” Sumption says. “When they can put their feet down on the ground, now they know they’re safe. That’s when you see the expression.”
The expression is all shades of joy, shame, relief and gratitude. But there are cases so serious you don’t see any of those things. In those cases, fate is tipped by the most basic instinct—the will to survive.
“The truth about SAR is we only help people finish their own rescues,” Sumption says. “They hang on long enough for me to get to them, I’ll get them out. I promise. I’ll get you. I’ll come get you. Don’t give up. Every survival school will tell you, the biggest thing that makes the difference between people who live and die is people who are committed to not quitting. It’s mind-set. I’m going to stay alive. I’m going to finish this. … All we do is put the hand out and pull them back.”
After a breakneck drive from Red Rock to a landing zone at the base of Charleston, we wait. Most of the team is here, geared up, hoping to be part of the action “inside of the tape,” as Sumption puts it. Before the sun sets, the hikers and their dog are safe.
Vesp, who worked in SWAT and patrol and ran a detective squad before taking command of SAR, says this is the only job he’s ever had where people call to say thank you. A Yellow Shirt who goes by “Little Huey” is more evasive when I ask what it feels like to reach out and change the course of a person’s life.
“I feel like the A-Team—that song is always in my head,” he jokes, whistling the theme. Then his face changes, softens just a little. “It feels pretty dang good.”
How not to be a fool in the great outdoors
1. The Boy Scouts are on to something. Be prepared.
2. Research. Familiarize yourself with the landscape and the environment, as well as emergency services.
3. Check the weather, terrain and expected duration of your activity. Equip yourself accordingly.
4. Always bring more clothing, food and water than you’ll need, in case the weather shifts or you get stuck spending an unplanned night outside.
5. Carry a first aid kit.
6. Tell someone exactly where you’ll be and what your timeframe is.
7. Consider purchasing a personal locator beacon, which can transmit a distress signal with coordinates and sometimes short text messages, depending on the device.
8. If an accident happens and you find yourself alone and injured, try not to panic. Resolve to hang on until rescuers can reach you.