The call typically comes at night. Joe Blattner answers his phone, and on the other end is either the sheriff’s office or one of its deputies. “Hey, Joe,” they’ll say. “We’ve got something.”
Depending on the season, that something could be any number of emergencies: A hunter who never came out of the woods. An angler clinging to a strainer in a raging river. A hiker who lost his footing and fell off a rock face. An alpinist buried in an avalanche. A body that needs to be recovered.
“One way or another,” Blattner says, “our job is to bring people home.”
As the chief of Missoula County Search and Rescue, Blattner oversees a unit of 32 other Montanans who brave harsh conditions in dangerous country to assist adventurers. And, like many SAR teams in the country, they’re all volunteers. “We’re people who love the outdoors, who have strong ties to our communities, and who just want to help,” Blattner says.
In a given year, his team—which includes river, ground, K-9, rope, air, and avalanche units—will put in 4,000 hours of work. This winter, they invited F&S to follow along as they conducted a simulated mission. The kind of mission that typically starts with a late-night phone call to Blattner—and is followed by a dispatch to his team: “Respond to the warehouse right now. We’ve got something.”
The River Rescue Team
In this simulation, water crews maneuver an inflatable Zodiac on the Clark Fork River. “If an angler is pinned on a log,” Blattner says, “time is of the essence.” Tom Fowlks
From left: Dan West, Allison Bernhisel, and Bart Bauer. Tom Fowlks
Lieutenant Jeremy Meeder and Sergeant Scott King, of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, assist SAR in water missions—recovering bodies and gathering evidence. “People think that if they throw something in the water, it’ll never be found,” Blattner says. “Not true. We’ll find it.” Tom Fowlks The K-9 and Ground Search Teams
Missoula County SAR relies on German shepherds that are certified in two kinds of scent detection. The first is tracking and trailing. “This is for when someone is lost, maybe moving, and the dogs can follow their scent,” Blattner says. The second is HRD—human remains detection—used when there is a known or suspected fatality. SAR volunteers David Howe, with Abby, and Ellie Cosgrove, with Remi. Tom Fowlks
Remi works a scent trail. Tom Fowlks
The K-9 team uses cadaver remains to train the dogs in HRD. Tom Fowlks
One of the most efficient tactics the ground team utilizes is running forest roads. “This allows us to rule out that a person is not in X location at X time,” Blattner says, “and we can start to paint a picture and ask: Where could this person be?” A time-saving—and lifesaving—measure hunters can take to help SAR is simply leaving a note saying where they’re going. Blattner gets why hunters want to guard a secret spot but says all you have to do is “write it down, seal it in an envelope, and give it to a loved one. Knowing your starting point can shave 12 hours off of our search.” Tom Fowlks
From left: Cosgrove, Jim Salyers, Bauer, Bernhisel, and Mick Faherty. Tom Fowlks The Snowmobile Search Team
During winter, SAR deploys teams into the mountains on snowshoes, skis, and snowmobiles.
In this training session, members of the winter unit race through Lolo Pass toward a victim buried by an avalanche. Each rider wears an avalanche beacon on their base layer in case another avalanche occurs. Inside their packs, they carry metal shovels, avalanche probes, food, water, and extra clothing. Tom Fowlks
From left: Shane Richmond, Ehlers, and West. Tom Fowlks The Rope Rescue Team
When a backcountry hunter misses a step, tumbles down a rock face, and finds himself injured so badly he can’t get up, that’s when the rope team comes to the rescue. Once the victim is located—possibly with help from the K-9 team or the air team, which will deploy drones with thermal-imaging scanners—the rope team gets into position.
In this simulation, Seth Whitfield lowers Bowen Newell and a rescue litter, which Newell will use to secure the victim before he’s lifted back up the rock face.
Blattner, who enjoys high-altitude mountaineering when he’s not overseeing an SAR mission, says these rope rescues can get intense. “As soon as you go over the edge of a cliff, your heart rate goes up,” he says. “That’s a good thing. It forces me to focus on every move.”
The rope team’s work isn’t limited to the mountains, though. They’ll also come in to assist with swift-water missions. Blattner recalls an instance when an inflatable raft had become pinned on a logjam at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. The two rafters got to safety, but their boat was left stuck. “We came in so that someone else didn’t die trying to recover it,” Blattner says. Tom Fowlks
From left: Alex Williams, Whitfield, and Bernhisel. Tom Fowlks
Becca Wallace, Bernhisel, and Salyers pull on a mechanical-advantage rope system. Tom Fowlks The Avalanche Rescue Team
Throughout a mission, Blattner (center) acts as the liaison with the sheriff’s office to keep them up to date on SAR’s progress. Here, he works with his team from a mobile command post to plan logistics for a missing-person simulation. Tom Fowlks
Members of the winter team use avalanche probes to poke through snow debris and search for a buried person. “Once we feel something with the probe—what could be a backpack, for instance—we start digging,” Blattner says. Tom Fowlks
The team extricates the victim from the avalanche debris. Tom Fowlks
After the team wraps and preps the victim for warmth and transport, they rush her to the ambulance.
What I love most about this job,” Blattner says, “is helping other people and seeing their response to our help. And I just love working with SAR people. We enter some harsh conditions with each other, and that creates a really special sense of camaraderie.” Tom Fowlks