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Wilderness Search And Rescue Missions Up In 2020

New Mexico National Guard via Flickr
Search and rescue training in the Albuquerque foothills, August, 2017.

In 2020, after being cooped up indoors because of the pandemic New Mexicans were encouraged to get outside, go hiking, and enjoy the wilderness. And people heeded the call. But with increased usage, came an increase in calls for help. 

When lost or injured hikers call for help, New Mexico Search and Rescue Resource Officer Bob Rodgers coordinates with his fifty volunteer search and rescue teams. It’s been a busy year for them. Rescue missions are up by 25-percent; that makes 135 with a week left in 2020.

Rodgers said groups of hikers are getting larger, too. Pre-pandemic it was one or two hikers who might call for help, but this year there have been more groups of six to ten. 

Most 911 calls come from mountains near cities – think the Sandias and Sangre de Cristos. Rodgers says it’s mostly inexperienced hikers who get in over their heads – especially at Albuquerque’s La Luz trail.

He described a typical call for help from the Sandia mountains. “People will go to the trail head, start hiking up, hit that snow, keep on going, and eventually that snow will turn into ice. It’s not a great trail even in good weather conditions.” Rodgers said his teams will not go up the La Luz trail in snow without crampons or spikes in their hiking boots. 

Rescue workers come out with ropes, ATVs, dogs, or aerial drones, and they work hand-in-hand with government agencies like fire departments and sheriff’s offices. They are almost always successful; only two people were not found this year.  

Michael Nestor grew up in the mountains around Santa Fe. For years he worked as a Ski Patroller and with the Atalaya Search and Rescue team. He says that even when all goes well a wilderness rescue is a fraught experience for everyone involved. 

Nestor says when people get stuck late in the day, they get cold, tired, and they make poor decisions. “The reality of it is, no matter how good you are, no how informed you are, no matter how careful you are, you can die. It’s just bigger than we are.” Nestor says one of the primary dangers in New Mexico is the temperature swings of 30 or 40 degrees in the mountains. People are often not prepared for the cold. 

If you’re heading into the mountains over the holidays, experts say to take plenty of food, something to start a fire, and always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.