Teton Becomes First County With Dedicated Rescue Helicopter

Teton County Search and Rescue has seen increased need for year-round backcountry missions

From decreasing rescue times to keeping rescuers safer, a helicopter is a frequently-utilized tool in backcountry search and rescue operations. Experts agree that use of helicopters during these kinds of emergencies is beneficial across the board. (Courtesy photo from Dirk Collins)

By Melissa Thomasma

Special to the Wyoming Truth

As daylight dwindled on June 14, a hiker from Afton realized she was in serious trouble. Disoriented by fog, chilled by the wet weather, exhausted and stranded on a precipitous cliff band in the mountains east of Afton, she called 911 for help. When the Star Valley Search and Rescue team reached the woman, they quickly realized that her rescue would take hours of technical effort. 

“High angle ropes and rigging-type rescues like that are not only time-consuming, but they put rescuers at risk,” Matt Hansen, communications director for Teton County Search and Rescue, told the Wyoming Truth. “The Star Valley team called us for our helicopter, and we were able to short-haul the hiker safely to the valley floor.”

The air rescue took only 15 minutes, and the woman, whose name was not released, did not require medical care.”

Hansen said this is an excellent example of why helicopter access is critical for the rescue organization. And thanks to individual, nonprofit and corporate donors, Teton County Search and Rescue will soon be the first in Wyoming to own and operate a year-round rescue helicopter—a tool Hansen regards as increasingly important as the demand for backcountry rescues expands every year.

Teton County Search and Rescue, which has relied on a leased helicopter, will soon be the first in Wyoming to own and operate a year-round rescue helicopter. (Courtesy photo from Dirk Collins) 

An urgent need

In 2022, the team responded to over 130 incidents – demanding 5,246 hours of rescuers’ time — up from just 105 missions in 2021, according to the organization’s year-end report. It also stated that “the severity of the injuries seems to be more intense and life threatening” than in previous years. In 2022, the team performed 44 helicopter rescues, up from 38 the year before and 16 in 2020.

Teton County Search and Rescue began publicly fundraising for the new helicopter in March and reached their financial goal in just two months.

The core of the $7.25 million Airbus HI25 “A-Star” ship was constructed by EuroTec in France. It is currently being built to meet the rescue agency’s specifications and will touch down in Teton County in October—right on time for early winter training and rescues. 

“We like to say that this helicopter is built like a mountaineer: light and powerful,” said Cody Lockhart, Teton County Search and Rescue Chief Advisor. A 13-year veteran of the organization, he has seen firsthand the lifesaving impact of a helicopter in the backcountry.

A helicopter designed for high-altitude work like the “A-Star” is “safer and more able to accomplish more in tricky terrain,” Lockhart noted. He said this model of aircraft holds the record for highest-altitude rescue in the world: In 2021, it plucked a climber from the side of Mt. Everest at 20,833 feet.

As digital technology evolves and backcountry gear becomes more lightweight and powerful, adventure seekers are venturing further into the wilderness than ever before. This makes an emergency exponentially tougher to manage.

“The distance that our team has to travel to get to an injured patient often requires the use of the helicopter,” Hansen said.

For the last six years, Teton County Search and Rescue has leased a helicopter from October through May, ensuring the winter and spring months — which come with an array of ski, snowboard, snowmobile and other outdoor accidents — are covered. This arrangement left busy summer and fall months with increasingly intermittent access to a helicopter.

“Helicopters have become harder to acquire due to longer and more intense wildfire seasons,”  Hansen said.

Without a dedicated helicopter, the team has to request that Grand Teton National Park’s federally-owned helicopter be released for a rescue by Teton Interagency Helitack.

The body of Teton County Search and Rescue’s new helicopter was built in France and is now being outfitted with all of the organization’s rescue equipment needs. It will arrive in Jackson Hole in October. (Courtesy photo from EuroTec)

“If it’s on a fire or another park rescue, then that helicopter simply isn’t available,” he said.

Rescuers then face longer travel times reaching the scene on ATV, horseback or foot. Not only does this kind of rescue demand more time from the rescuers — meaning they’re not available for other calls that may come in — it also means an ill or injured person faces a lengthier wait before receiving advanced medical care.

Airborne multitasking

The rescue helicopter en route to Teton County will be equipped to serve three main roles—all of which are often needed on a single mission, Lockhart said.

“SAR helicopters are utility vehicles set up for multiple mission profiles,” he said. They can carry up to five rescuers to a scene, seats can be removed to allow a patient to lay flat and receive medical care, and the helicopter is equipped to perform short-haul rescues where a rescuer dangles below the aircraft from a rope to collect the victim and swoop them to safety.

The new helicopter will benefit backcountry users beyond the bounds of Teton County. With a mosaic of jurisdictions and categorizations, the agency’s response times and resources will be capable of serving a variety of communities and collaborative organizations.

“Our helicopter will not just be useful for us, but also for our neighboring counties,” Hansen said, citing the June 14 rescue. “This is a unique and valuable resource for all of us. There’s no substitute for the efficiency of the helicopter.”

As more people recreate in the wild areas around Jackson Hole, Hansen anticipates the number of calls the team receives will continue its upward trend. Teton County Search and Rescue has never charged those who utilize the agency’s services, he said,  and even with the new helicopter in the hangar, that won’t change. 

“When people get into trouble and need our help, there’s no judgment from our team,” Hansen said.  “We want to encourage people to be safe, but call us if you need us. Having the reliability of a year-round rescue helicopter will no doubt save lives, and you can’t put a price on that.”

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