BOISE — Five miles up Bogus Basin Road on a narrow shoulder, a few passenger vehicles sat sandwiched between a sheriff’s patrol car and a search and rescue truck.
On this cold afternoon of Feb. 13, hiker Kyle Crowden, 27, had been missing for three days, his car found empty at the Dry Creek Trailhead. The snow started falling more heavily as his family stood on the edge of the road, peering out into the Boise foothills.
The Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Team had covered all the possible trails in the area, at some points in terrain where the snow was 6-feet deep. The search had slowed and neared being called off due to the weather.
Search unit members offered coffee to the family and friends who hadn’t eaten or slept much in days. Crowden's family, in turn, offered the search members donuts — they hadn’t slept or eaten much themselves.
When Crowden’s uncle, who had taken to the field to help search, arrived back from the nearly 10-hour day, the group huddled at the back of a car as he reluctantly took off his wet clothes and shoes. The searchers and family members hugged and reassured each other they'd be back out as soon as the weather allowed.
Crew members with Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit, all volunteers, drop what they're doing at a moment's notice to respond to emergencies like this one. They train vigorously, invest in gear and meet each week to be prepared for the next call. When a call of a missing person does come in, the unit works closely with law enforcement to coordinate the search.
Much of their efforts are done behind the scenes, and Idahoans might not even know this volunteer search crew exists until they need them most.
Unit member Daniel Roberts was among those on the Dry Creek Mission searching for Crowden. He knows firsthand how it feels to wonder if a missing loved one is OK.
Roberts, a National Guard veteran, joined the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit after the loss of a childhood friend, Jacob Gray, who went missing in the Olympic National Park in 2016. He watched Gray’s family live without closure for a year before his body was recovered.
“I just wanted to do what I could to try to bring people home,” Roberts said, “and at least bring a family closure that my friend's family didn’t have for so long.”
Average 'Joes' and 'Jills'
Despite different reasons for joining, members of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit bring to the table a common passion for the wilderness.
They know the drill, whether they're at work, shopping for groceries, or eating dinner with their family — when an alert blares from their phone, they respond. Crew members who are able to drop what they're doing meet at the unit's base in Boise, and within the hour they're off to search.
Crew members hold diverse day jobs. There's an Ada County Jail nurse, an assistant professor from Northwest Nazarene University, a Simplot potato scientist. All give up their outside hours to work alongside law enforcement to bring missing hikers and hunters out of the woods and back home.
All 120 members of the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit are volunteers, some for decades. At times, some put in as many hours a week as a full-time job.
The crew responds to 20 to 30 calls a year, on average. A search could last hours, days or be called off before they even leave their headquarters.
The group attaches no fee to its service. Law enforcement agents aren’t charged for the extra manpower, and lost hikers aren’t charged for their rescue. The nonprofit's funds come almost entirely from a longstanding corn booth at the Western Idaho Fair and donations. Last year the booth brought in $20,000 for the unit.
The state reimburses the group for a few things — mileage on cars, use of canines — but not its time. The group gets no reimbursement at all from searches where the missing individual is expected to be deceased. The question of receiving more funds from the state for its service, treasurer Jim Findley said, has never come up.
"(Being state funded) is really not our purpose," he said. "We're all volunteers."
Regardless of being volunteers, for 60 years they have served as first responders for the state, building the reputation as the group you want to show up during high-stakes situations. About 75 percent of their calls are urgent.
But search and rescue is far from what people see on television and in movies.
Besides basic search certification, the unit is made up of teams of different specialties. The tech team specializes in rope rescue. The track team is trained in tracking a person down. The canine team handles dogs, and the drone team flies drones to assist searches. Many longtime members are certified for multiple, if not all, teams.
The unit spends a great deal more time training than in the field. They know that details as small as always packing the right equipment can make a big difference in their response time, and subsequently the success of a search.
Members keep their own "24-hour packs" loaded with essentials at all times. They hold at least 2 liters of water, a 24 hour supply of no-cook food, a compass, whistle, emergency shelter, sleeping pad and extra clothing. Full packs can weigh 25 to 35 pounds. Backcountry gear is expensive and most try to buy the best available — because their lives and the lives of others may depend on it.
A compound in Boise holds all of the unit's vehicles and equipment — two large search and rescue trucks, a command center trailer, high angle rope rescue supplies, avalanche equipment, GPS and radio systems, medical litters, laptops and printers for mapping are some of the hundreds of items in their inventory.
The scope of this commitment is sometimes tough to translate to aspiring crew members, eager for the adrenaline rush of a wilderness search but not ready for the lengthy training that comes beforehand, said Gregg Rettschlag, a decadelong crew member and the unit's current president.
New volunteers first attend an hourlong informational meeting, then — if they choose to apply — go through nine hours of basic search and rescue academy. Members are required to be both CPR and first-aid certified. After that, new recruits can choose to go through additional training and testing to be certified on different teams, but are required to attend meetings once a week and an all-day field training once a month.
“It’s hard for folks to grasp how much time they have available and they’re willing to give up,” Rettschlag said. “How do we communicate to people the amount of time they’re going to sacrifice?”
Searches open up new worlds of uncharted territory for unit members, setting foot in corners of forests and mountains inaccessible to the public.
One of the longest searches in the group’s history took the team to Craters of the Moon National Park in search of two experienced hikers who lost their lives after getting turned around in the trails. Members still recall covering vast, untouched terrain in the month-long search.
“You don’t get to do stuff like you do, the average Joe or Jill like us. I’m amazed where we end up, who we’re working with, how much history this group has that people just accept that we know what we’re doing,” Rettschlag said. “It’s pretty unique that suddenly sheriffs are coming up to you and asking for your help and you’re asking, ‘Who am I?’ Well, I’m a dorky engineer from Micron.”
The Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit doesn’t show up much online. Its name is mentioned in articles about missing persons and hikers, but sometimes not even that.
“The vast majority of the time, people in news or people in general don’t realize that we’ve done anything,” Aaron Burdin, public relations director and four-year team member, said. “Probably 95 percent of our missions — maybe even more, maybe even 99 percent of the missions that we do — are never told to the public. And even if some story does happen, we’re typically not mentioned.”
But behind the scenes, the search unit is on the front lines.
Ada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Rowe has worked with the unit a handful of times since 2014 and personally calls the crew when needed. The unit responds, no questions asked, he said.
“They’re highly professional. Their amount of dedication is amazing, to be able to drop whatever they’re doing to respond to our request for help,” Rowe said. “We let them make the call on how they want to deploy their people.”
The crew members have built trust with law enforcement that when they're called, they'll get the job done.
When the unit pulls into the scene, general searchers start setting up base camp and checking equipment, while leadership connects with law enforcement to be debriefed. Some days the unit doesn’t know where they’ll even be searching or who they are looking for before they arrive.
The crew plans each step carefully before deploying.
“We go slow to go fast,” Burdin said.
About five years ago, Rettschlag, at that time a crew member for five years, stepped into a role of search manager — planning search maneuvers, coordinating the teams on the ground and mapping the area covered.
Being at home base with the search taking place for miles around him, he said, is not a “comfortable spot.” Rettschlag gets antsy. He’d much rather be in the backcountry with his backpack.
“But, at some point,” Rettschlag said, “somebody has to run the show.”
The Boise-based unit is the only Mountain Rescue Association-certified group in Idaho and has built a reputation as the largest and best-trained search and rescue unit statewide over the past six decades. The group serves all across Idaho, sometimes helping other law enforcement based search crews and other smaller county rescue units.
Law enforcement agencies have the final call to end the search — but never has Rettschlag been on a mission that was called off that he thought should have continued.
Often, the agencies involved run out of information to direct the search forward and Rettschlag doesn’t want to keep the members marching with no leads.
Although many searches do, not all searches bring someone home. Even after the Ada County Sheriff's Office suspended the search for Crowden Feb. 13, his family continued to search — by snowshoes, snowmobiles and helicopter. The sheriff's office resumed the search on March 18 when the weather improved, but only for two days. Search crew member Christi Kelley said she hiked roughly 17 miles in those two days.
While navigating terrain in search of a missing person, family and friends are often back at the site waiting anxiously for updates.
“It’s a rough situation, and they’re going through the worst of it,” Roberts said.
A dedicated “family liaison” stays by their side and relays any information they can from the search team. The relationship is give and take; family members can provide key information about the person and their habits that sometimes can lead to a recovery.
Alisa Rettschlag, a search unit member and Gregg’s wife, noticed the unit was facing the obstacle of searchers standing by watching family members struggle with no news, or with the worst news they could receive.
Now, all unit members have gone through emotional first aid training with the Trauma Intervention Program of the Treasure Valley, not only to provide emotional support to missing persons — who may have been alone in the wilderness for days before they’ve located them — but also for the family members.
“One of the things that is very important is that we introduce ourselves as a family liaison to the family and we tell them what our job is,” Alisa Rettschlag said. “We are essentially their communication line between our operations leader and them.”
Directing family members during a search can be a tough thing to balance. While extra feet can always cover more ground, having family members join the unit in the field adds another person — who may not be trained properly — to keep an eye on.
But the search volunteers understand if it was their own loved one, they’d be leading the search, too. Some pair with family members and take them out on the trails.
"My family didn't want to stand," Janet Coupe, Kyle Crowden's mother, said. Coupe's husband, brother-in-law and nephew all searched alongside the unit.
During a field training on March 16, at Bonneville Point just outside of Boise, a select few members of the unit played the role of "spontaneous volunteers" and peppered the practicing searchers with questions like, "Do you think my friend is still alive?"
Their answers have to be both honest and realistic. Most responded, "We're hoping for the best, but you need to be prepared for the worst."
The ones who search with the family run the risk of explaining to a father, mother, sibling, why they are turning back if the loved one is found deceased. Burdin was out searching with the father of a missing hunter when he got the radio call that they had found the hunter's body.
“Unfortunately, I ended up having to tell him why we were turning back,” he said.
When the search is over
Some things are left in the backcountry. Sometimes it’s the person they were looking for and unable to find. Sometimes even when the search was a success, the story is left behind.
That might be for the better, Burdin said.
Media coverage can bring untrained individuals looking to help only to be turned down by the team. The search unit also tries to protect the family’s privacy by releasing minimal information.
Along with their equipment, members carry memories of their first missions, helicopter rides, nights spent on mountains and carrying hikers miles out of the wilderness back to safety.
But, it’s not only the good memories that follow them out of the woods, the team also carries with them recollections of recovering critically injured hikers, recovering bodies or recovering nothing at all. When embarking on a search, unit members know there is a possibility of finding remains.
Alisa Rettschlag keeps an eye on the unit members, checking in days, weeks and even months after searches to watch for signs that they may be taking the outcome hard.
As of now, the unit doesn’t offer emotional support for members, but she hopes in the future they can fund counselors willing to volunteer a session or two for members in need.
“It all keeps growing,” she said.
Paws and propellers
Everybody’s dog has a good nose — a common unit saying.
But the dogs on the canine team need more than just a heightened sense of smell. The unit’s tracking dogs are trained to search the air currents for human smells and differentiate between someone who is alive or potentially deceased. After a year of training, search dogs and handlers are tested and certified by national search dog organizations before they can take to the field.
The canine team is made up of air scent dogs that locate any live humans, trailing dogs who search for the scent of a particular person, and cadaver dogs who locate human remains — water cadaver dogs are specially trained to locate individuals who drowned. The team has six standing dog searchers and is expecting to double in size this year with six more in training.
“Searching with a dog works really well in the wilderness,” said Ann Moser, search unit dog handler, “because there’s not that many people out there.”
Moser has handled three dogs on the team since 2007 — Watson, Cricket and Oscar, all giant schnauzers.
All dogs wear a GPS tracker and a bell to help the team locate them, especially on searches with a large range and dense brush. The dogs assist on six to eight missions per year on average.
Dangers accompany sending a four-legged counterpart into the field, just as they would a human searcher. Dog handlers must be cautious of other animals and treacherous terrain and focus their attention completely on their dog. One search member acts as a “flanker” to the handler and their dog to make sure they don’t overlook potential threats and walk into harm’s way.
The first mission Rettschlag led as search manager, Moser’s first tracking dog, Watson, a cadaver dog, recovered the missing person’s remains.
“Memorable searches don’t always mean they had a good outcome for the people,” Moser said. “But at least my dog and I played a part in bringing closure to the family.”
Sam Stone works with a different kind of companion — in the field he mans a drone.
“Some think initially it’s going to be super straight forward,” Stone said. "You fly the drone, spot the person and save the day. But there’s always different factors coming into play.”
Search leaders can chose to deploy a drone for its the aerial eyes to scope out large or difficult-to-reach areas such as cliffs or over water. They're also used to spot items like articles of clothing from the missing person.
Before the search for Kyle Crowden was called back on this week, a drone was used to take thousands of pictures of the area that searchers to clicked through one by one, looking for any indication as to where he might have ended up.
Drone operators on the team are all certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for non-hobbyist use and have rules regarding searching with the technology. If a helicopter is deployed for the search, any drones must land to avoid interference.
But no matter your special skill on the team, Stone said, “above all” they are all search members first.
“At the very foundation of all of it,” he said, “everybody is expected to be able to put on a pack, walk down a trail and call someone’s name.”