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Quiet Heroes
Successful recovery of missing hikers illustrates the critical importance of search and rescue efforts in Northwest Montana
Nick Furlong, center, works the door of the ALERT Air Ambulance during a Flathead County Search and Rescue training session with ALERT in Kalispell. - Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
The call can arrive any time on any day. There are no exceptions, not even Christmas Eve or during Thanksgiving dinner. When there’s a missing person reported in the outdoors of the Flathead Valley, a select community of men and women, mostly volunteers, stop everything they’re doing and load up.

The successful rescue of two missing hikers in Glacier National Park earlier this month illustrated yet again the critical importance — and skillful abilities — of search and rescue crews in Northwest Montana.

“While our situation was at times tenuous, it was not insurmountable due to our faith in the dedicated and talented men and women of the National Park Service and all of the coordinating volunteer groups who were ultimately responsible for our safe return,” wrote Neal Peckens and Jason Hiser, the two hikers who were saved after going missing for almost a week in the Two Medicine area near the park’s southeast corner.

“It is to them that we owe the deepest debt of gratitude for their tireless efforts.”

Search and rescue is deeply rooted in this valley. The inception of an organized effort dates back almost 70 years when a group of World War II veterans led by Sheriff Dick Walsh banded together after seeing a critical need.

Today Dick’s son, Pat, is still involved in the efforts his father spearheaded in 1947. Pat, a retired Flathead County detective, still tells stories of those early days.

“I remember being in the car when my dad ran out to incidents,” Walsh, 67, said recently. “It’s just something I like to stay involved in. I like getting out there and searching.”

Pat has seen Flathead Valley search and rescue operations grow from humble beginnings into the largest and most diverse compilation of resources in the state.

Few other places pose as many perilous factors, like rugged terrain and vicious weather. Add to that the constant arrival of visitors drawn to the famed peaks of Glacier National Park, the wilderness of the Bob Marshall or the whitewater forks of the Flathead River.

The number of search and rescue incidents has continued to rise in recent years, according to statistics from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office. Last year there were more than 100 calls and this year is on pace to match or surpass that mark as crews prepare for the winter months, which is the busiest time of year along with spring and early summer during high water. The calls vary in severity, from someone being marooned with a broken-down truck on a logging road to more dire scenarios such as the missing hikers in Glacier.

“I’m very proud of the search and rescue efforts we’re able to mount,” said Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry. “All of the various entities of volunteers give up their nights, their weekends, their Christmas Eves, their Thanksgivings and days when most people are home with their families. They’re out there for absolutely no reimbursement, no glory. They’re just trying to help the community out and they do an amazing job of it.”

Eleven-year-old Brandon Watne, left, plays the victim as ALERT flight nurse Steve Lamb, right, describes what Flathead County Search and Rescue personnel might experience when the ALERT Air Ambulance responds to a call in the back country. - Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

The resources available in the Flathead Valley are prepared for air, land and water and are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The volunteers devote roughly 100 hours annually. They remain constantly involved in professional training and stay physically fit – requirements for entering the rugged outdoors for an indefinite period of time.

“At any one time you have to realize there’s still a risk associated with what we do. A lot of these people are putting their lives on the line,” said Brian Heino, the county’s search and rescue coordinator. “We try to eliminate as much of the hazards out there but there’s always a hazard that can occur.”

Curry assigned the role of lead coordinator to Heino two years ago. Heino leads the county’s nonprofit organization of trained volunteers, the Flathead County Search and Rescue Association, which is funded by a mill and operates on a tight budget aided by donations and fundraising. There is also the North Valley Rescue Association, another nonprofit group of skilled volunteers. North Valley emerged in 1970 and is based in Columbia Falls. Overall both organizations combine to have roughly 100 personnel.

During the winter months, the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol is an elite group of volunteer men and women trained to respond to winter backcountry incidents like avalanches.

Since 1975, Kalispell Regional Medical Center has operated the ALERT helicopter, which provides life support and care over a 350-mile range. ALERT transports more than 300 patients a year. Another privately owned helicopter devoted to search and rescue efforts is joining local resources in the near future.

A dive team operates throughout the county and focuses most of its efforts on incidents on Flathead Lake or the nearby rivers, especially during the early summer when high water leads to an influx in boating accidents.

Glacier Park has a trained search and rescue unit along with the U.S. Border Patrol.

The first meeting of Flathead County Rescue and Life Saving Association in 1947. Click Here to enlarge | Photo courtesy of Pat Walsh

Adam Peacock is a member of the local Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team. Peacock finds himself constantly involved in tactical wilderness searches that can require mountain or swift-water rescues and recoveries. He typically brings his trained search dog that helps with man tracking.

“It’s a cliché, but it’s often a race against time,” Peacock said. “And in some cases it is literally a race against time and weather. It’s challenging. You just prepare yourself and just know you’re out there doing the best that you can and that your team is doing the best it can.”

Walsh and a group of local border patrol agents, as well as other search and rescue personnel from Lewis and Clark County, recently found the remains of Noah Pippin, a Marine who went missing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness two years ago.

The Pippin family publicly praised the searchers for providing them with closure. The local searchers who found Pippin’s remains will be honored for their efforts Nov. 16 at a ceremony at the state capitol in Helena.

It will be a public event that can often be rare for the quiet heroes who search and rescue. But the publicity is not why they’re out there.

“We’re not as noticeable. But the function is there,” Heino said. “People come here for recreational fun. When they get into trouble our job is to go rescue them.”
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