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Search-and-rescue volunteers give it their all

Thu., Dec. 23, 2010, 7:26 a.m.

Ski column

If you like to ski out of bounds, pay heed to a cautionary tale.

A few weekends ago the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol was getting ready for its Christmas party. A full spread was catered in the ski patrol chalet. For a Saturday, the mountain was quiet.

About 1:30 p.m. the Sheriff’s Department called. A skier had been reported lost. Keith Schultz, an IT professional for a Spokane construction company, was the MSSP incident commander who took the call. It led to an intensive search involving nearly 100 people that would last until the next day.

“It started small, because most of the time we find somebody in the bar,” Schultz said. “But it kept building and by 9 p.m. we had 50-plus patrollers, eight snowmobiles, 10 search-and-rescue volunteers and four deputy sheriffs involved.”

When it was confirmed that the lost skier was no longer on the mountain or having a beer, the search was launched. A big storm was coming in. There were only a few hours of daylight left. Schultz organized a sweep and called the Department of Emergency Management. The DEM, run by the Sheriff’s Department, coordinates search and rescue in Spokane County.

Schultz called in the DEM because when the ski patrol leaves the resort area on a search, it isn’t covered for injuries. When the DEM gets involved, the search gets a mission number and anyone who gets hurt or has equipment problems is covered.

The DEM also gives the ski patrol access to cell phone records. When the skier got lost, he called a friend about 10 a.m. The skier said he was going to try and find his way out. Instead of staying put, he kept moving downhill – a big mistake. By the time the ski patrol mobilized, he had a five-hour head start.

About 3 p.m. it started snowing hard. The DEM can supply a helicopter for a search, but bad weather grounded it. Tracks the skier made would quickly fill in. Several patrol sweeps in the area described in the phone call turned up nothing. Volunteers from Inland Northwest Search and Rescue showed up to help. The Winter Knights snowmobile club also sent volunteers.

“All those people are certified by the county to do searches,” Schultz said. “We had a lot of people up there. It was going to be a bad night and we had to find this guy.”

Schultz kept his search parties out until about 1:30 a.m. in worsening weather. Some patrollers had done several sweeps. Everyone was exhausted. They would resume at dawn. The Christmas party would have to wait.

Come daylight, the ski patrol set out again. Then a call came that the skier was alive and well. He had walked through the Blanchard Creek drainage for about 20 hours and ended up at a farmhouse about 8:30 a.m.

His poor judgment didn’t cost him anything. But hundreds of volunteer hours and personal expenses were committed to finding him. No one was paid except the deputy sheriffs.

The skier could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by knowing and following a few simple rules. Never ski out of bounds alone. If you get lost, stay put – or ditch your skis and move back up the hill the way you came. Finally, if you dial 911 on your cell phone, the DEM will give the ski patrol your exact coordinates.

As frustrating as the search was, it was all in a weekend’s work for Shultz and his fellow ski patrollers.

“At least it was a catered search,” he said.

Bill Jennings can be reached at

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