Mono SAR Team to the Rescue

Mono SAR Team to the Rescue
SAR team member Mitchell Quiring snaps a selfie on a swiftwater rescue training day in the Mammoth Lakes area.
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The primary goal when spending time in the mountains is to get back home safely. But when things go terribly wrong in the backcountry, hopefully there’s a great local search and rescue team ready to respond. In Ridge’s home base of Mammoth Lakes, the incredible folks on the Mono County Sheriff Search and Rescue (SAR) Team are the first responders of the wilderness.

Mono SAR Team Public Information Officer, board member and rescue member Mitchell Quiring has lived in the Eastern Sierra for 10 years and has spent the past six years on the Mono SAR Team. He’s also an incredible photographer, and he sent over all of the photos below. We chatted with Mitchell to hear more about his time on the SAR team.

How Mono Search and Rescue Calls Work

When a backcountry trip goes wrong and someone determines they can’t get out without help, they have to find a way to reach 911. In areas with cell service this is an easy call, but calls may also come in via InReach SOS activations, calls from concerned friends or family members when their loved ones aren’t back on time, other hikers hiking out to get in touch with 911, etc.

When a call comes in, one of the SAR coordinators from the Mono County Sheriff’s Office starts making a plan. They investigate the case and call the Mono SAR operations leader. They’ll then create a map with the rescue base location and alleged patient location and info.

The operations leader will page the SAR team volunteers and the team starts to assemble, typically at the SAR headquarters in Mammoth Lakes. There’s no warning when a call comes in, and the volunteer SAR team members have busy personal and work lives.

“Sometimes you just can’t go when the phone rings, though often members will move heaven and earth to make it happen,” Mitchell said. It sounds tough having to drop everything to make it to a SAR call, but it’s actually the opposite – not being able to drop everything and go with the team – that Mitchell said is the hardest part.

As people assemble, they hop in rescue vehicles (anything from trucks to snowmobiles to OHVs depending on the season and the call) and start the search/rescue mission.

Sometimes these calls are as simple as a short hike, but sometimes they’re multi-day, heavily demanding, technical calls. Mono County is incredibly large — more than 3,000 square miles — and geographically diverse with expansive desert terrain, highly technical peaks at altitude and terrain that requires ice and snow skills, which makes rescues even more complex here.

The Mono SAR Team is made up of highly-skilled technical rope riggers, wilderness EMTs and medics, skiers/splitboarders, snowmachiners, OHV riders, swiftwater technicians, backpackers/hikers, communication experts, trackers and more.

In the SAR world, it takes a village to pull off these calls.

“We will always have a place for someone on a call, no matter their skill level. For every technical field member we have, we have a need on the opposite spectrum for other jobs and duties.”

Once a call is complete, whether that’s hours or days later, the SAR team has a debrief back at the rescue base to discuss successes and failures, replace gear on the rigs and note anything broken, missing or damaged so they’re prepared for the next call at a moment’s notice.

They also have monthly team meetings for deeper discussions on how to improve future calls. Critical calls always include a post-mission Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, and the team has access to comprehensive mental health services. Being part of the SAR team isn’t just physically taxing, it can be emotionally and mentally taxing too.

Mitchell’s 6+ years on the SAR Team

Some calls have stuck with Mitchell over the years. In his first year on the team, there were two separate boulder entrapments four days apart. “The calls were almost identical to the plot of the movie 127 Hours, except we were dealing with legs,” Mitchell said.

It’s rare for people to get pinned under boulders, but it can happen to anyone. Both of these calls happened when people were scrambling up or down boulder fields and unintentionally tipped boulders with their body weight.

The first took place in the Conness Lakes area near Yosemite National Park. A group on a peak nearby heard someone yelling for help below and had just enough cell service to call 911, but the SAR team received very little info about what was going on.

“We sent a hasty team in light and fast,” Mitchell said. “Just behind them were other teams carrying copious medical gear, our wheeled litter and some extra rigging gear on top of our personal SAR rigging gear.”

It turns out they needed all of it to rescue the individual who was trapped below the knee between two multi-thousand pound boulders. The team was able to use rigging equipment to move the rocks a few inches off of the person’s leg. Multiple tourniquets had to be placed before and after the rock was removed, and once free, the individual was hoisted into a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter waiting nearby.

Just four days later, the team received another call in the Duck Lake area in the Mammoth Lakes Basin from someone with both knees trapped between large rocks. This time the team had more info and the fresh experience from the previous rescue, so they were able to deploy into the field even more prepared. Both rescues were successful in execution and patient outcomes.

Making things even more intense during these calls, it was fire season (see the smoke in the above photos), an ever-increasing issue in the Eastern Sierra and beyond.

“Both calls were incredibly smoky, and helicopter access was difficult,” Mitchell said. “A lot had to line up for them both to be successful and we are so grateful they were. The team’s different skill sets worked together well – we pulled nearly every trick out of the book to make it happen.”

How Merino wool gear helps the SAR Team

Ridge has worked with the Mono County SAR Team for several years through a wholesale partnership. The SAR team wears a red version of our Solstice Sun Hoodies on calls.

“We love the uniformity they provide us, the sun protection, the comfort and that they’re slow to stink. Especially with back to back calls, odor resistance is a great trait.”

The whole SAR team is incredibly intentional about what they wear. When conditions rapidly change, Mitchell said, “We as rescuers can’t become part of the problem we’re trying to solve by using or wearing subpar gear.”

Mitchell and other SAR team members in Solstice Sun Hoodies snap a photo after rescuing an injured skier from Red Cone Bowl in Mammoth Lakes.

In addition to the red sun hoodies, many team members wear other Ridge clothing too, especially in the winter. Ridge base layers, socks and underwear are team favorites, Mitchell said.

“We consider our clothing to be part of our technical rescue kit. It needs to function at the highest level, just like the rest of our gear. In all seasons, we need flexibility as a call might start out hot and turn cold or vice versa. Breathability, warmth, cooling, moisture wicking and proper skin/sun protection are all factors that make us choose the clothing we do, and it’s why we are especially jazzed with our Ridge gear.”

Mitchell and other SAR team members wearing their typical uniform — branded Ridge Solstice Sun Hoodies — on a training day.

How to get involved and support the Mono SAR Team

“SAR teams have a place for people with all backgrounds,” Mitchell said. The Mono SAR Team does a ton of training and teaching to get the team dialed. The only prerequisite to getting involved? Getting really familiar with Mono County by whatever mode of transport you prefer.

Mitchell moved here for the recreational opportunities – skiing, climbing, running and backpacking in particular. Living an active life and spending a lot of time in the mountains is the best way to get prepared to join a SAR team.

“If you want to perform at altitude during technical events, you’d better be out there training and playing on your own time,” he said.

The Mono County SAR Team is entirely volunteer-run with team members contributing tons of time and often using their own equipment. The team relies on community donations to fund team equipment, higher level rescue and medical training, and facilities maintenance.

“We steward donations carefully and are incredibly grateful to our community for keeping us ‘in business,’” Mitchell said. If you spend time in the mountains, donating to your local SAR team is one of the best ways you can give back.

You can donate to the 501(c)3 Mono County SAR Team to support their work, read about their recent missions and learn more about getting involved.

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