Volunteers on the ice: group trains for rescues in cold and wet conditions

Greg Blessing, a volunteer on Park County Search and Rescue, works to reel in a victim who went through the ice during a training session on ice rescue for the swift water team at the Buffalo Bill State Park. (Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.)

POWELL — After eight hours in a classroom going over thick safety procedure manuals, members of the Park County Search and Rescue swift water rescue team were happy to get into the Buffalo Bill Reservoir on Sunday.

The Shoshone River runs cold even in summer. In late February it’s absolutely frigid. Yet volunteers rushed to the water’s edge at Buffalo Bill State Park on Sunday morning, diving in, doing cannonballs and sliding on the ice like jubilant children. A brisk breeze carried the sound of laughter across the reservoir’s rocky beaches. But hidden in their joy was a deadly serious agenda: ice rescue.

Team members donned special extreme weather drysuits, allowing them to stay in the water for several hours during the training. Only two members of the 13-member swift water team were around for the previous ice rescue training five years ago.

After team coordinator Bill Brown secured the final zipper on his drysuit, he still had one piece of equipment to put on: a necklace containing the ashes of former swift water team volunteer Edward Conning. The Cody resident died in a kayak accident in 2018.

“He was such a big part of our team,” Brown said of Conning “I want to keep his memory alive.”

His ashes aren’t just a memorial to the beloved volunteer — it’s a reminder of the dangerous conditions that search and rescue work in every time they rush to a scene. Park County’s Search and Rescue has already participated in two emergency winter rescues this month.

On Feb. 8, volunteers from Park and Big Horn counties rescued an ice waterfall climber in the South Fork. A few days later, they responded to a snowmobile accident in the Beartooth Mountains.

The backcountry is full of hazards and search and rescue trains for a wide variety of emergency rescues.

There are few rescues on the ice; most are self-rescues and go unreported, Brown said. But when called, there is little time to delay. Team members head to the scene with sirens going, some dressing in dry suits en route.

“Once in [the water] you have one minute to get your breathing under control. Then you only have 10 minutes where you’re going to be physically capable, because of the effect of cold water on your physiology,” said volunteer Jason Burckhardt, a Cody wildlife biologist. “Then you have one hour until you’re going to succumb to the effects of hypothermia.”

Once acclimated to working on the ice and in the frigid water, the team’s mood turned serious. Trainers from the Black Fox Rescue Institute, in Jackson, organized the group for rescue scenarios. Teams took turns using a variety of methods to pull one another from open water near the reservoir’s north shore.

KC Bess, owner of Black Fox, said safety starts with those seeking recreation on ice.

“It’s important to have a healthy respect for the ice and understand that it can change quickly. Just because it’s good one day doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good the next day,” said Bess.

Being properly equipped is the key to survival, Brown said. One of the best things you can do is not wear cotton or material that easily gets soaked and holds water. Wearing a pair of polar ice picks can also help with self-rescue. They have retractible spikes for safety, are conveniently worn around the neck and cost as little as $10. Also, if you fish with a group, a rope can be a life-saver.

One of the hardest tasks for search and rescue is finding victims on the ice or in the water.

Volunteer Greg Blessing has been on the team for more than 25 years and been involved in several rescue attempts on hard water.

“We get the call at night, typically,” Blessing said. “They’re fishing somewhere out there, their wife calls and says they haven’t come home from the reservoir so we get involved. Searching these lakes at night is nearly impossible.”

“Many of [the team’s missions] are going to be a recovery,” he said. “Most guys are going to self-rescue or by the time we get there, they’re going to be in big trouble.”

The best thing you can do to be safe is to have a plan, said Lance Mathess, the team’s former coordinator.

“We always recommend people, if you’re going out in the backcountry, you need to let somebody know where you’re going, don’t deviate from that trip,” Mathess said. “Let them know when you’re leaving and let them know when you expect to return.”

He also suggests a satellite tracker. The devices may be pricey, but they make finding victims much easier. Some models also allow you to contact emergency services directly.

“Technology has come a long way,” Mathess said. “When my wife and I go on small hikes to Yellowstone, we take our satellite tracker everywhere we go.”

Though he retired about a month ago, Mathess continues to volunteer for the team — and he’s been very impressed with his teammates’ level of commitment through the years.

“These volunteers are great people,” he said. “They don’t get paid, but they will respond to any emergency at any time of the day. Our community is lucky to have them. One of the hardest and yet most important things you can give your community is time.”

Park County Search and Rescue has a total of 30 volunteers. Mathess points out many more people in the community donate resources to the team, like members of the Cody Country Snowmobile Association or ranchers who donate pack animals for backcountry rescues.