As the number of skiers and snowmobilers charging deeper into the backcountry in search of unblemished powder rises, so does the number of calls for rescue. Now, a search and rescue outfit based in Whitefish can look for lost people from the air using a piece of technology that might already be stitched into their jackets.
"It can cover such huge amounts of terrain in a short amount of time," says Daniel "Howie" Howlett.
Howlett is the director of training and technical support for RECCO in North America.
"Basically the aircraft is flying around 300-feet off the ground, around 70 miles-per-hour, and if you have a reflector, whether you're in the forest or maybe unlucky enough to be in an avalanche, you're probably going to get a signal from a reflector on the ground," Howlett says.
The detector looks like a short red keg that hangs from the belly of Two Bear’s Bell 429 Helicopter. It emits and receives a radio signal that bounces off a little reflector patch often sewn into ski jackets and snowboard boots.
"With a detector, [you're searching] just like you would a flashlight," Howlett says. "The passive reflector is like a mirror. So as the flashlight beam goes past the reflector you get a signal that doubles and it comes back."
The patch doesn’t need batteries or to be turned on. Howlett says that makes it more reliable than other distress signals and gives it an unlimited lifespan.
RECCO technology was developed in the 1970s in Sweden to help find skiers buried in avalanches. Many ski resorts and search and rescue organizations in Montana already use a 2-pound handheld detector during ground searches, but Two Bear hopes to use the 180-pound detector to cover 1,000-acre search areas in all seasons.
Two Bear is currently developing a flight protocol for its new detector.
On a recent practice run, Pilot James Heckman flies a grid pattern while searching for two Flathead County Sheriff deputies hiding in a 2,000-acre forested plot north of Kalispell. The detector makes a fuzzy static hum as it sends out its signal.
Heckman makes a few turns a few hundred feet above the treetops until the detector gets a signal reflection from the ground.
Flathead County Search and Rescue coordinator Chris Roberts says calls to his office rose over the past decade as more and more people ventured farther into the backcountry.
"Better technology and snowmobiles and backcountry ski gear is getting people farther into the backcountry than they’ve been able to get before," Roberts says.
He says Search and Rescue averaged 100 calls a year over the past four years and responded to about 80 each year. He says the new RECCO detector could be a lifesaver in all seasons, as more brands incorporate the reflector into climbing harnesses, backpacks and even watch bands.
Two Bear director and pilot Jim Pierce says he’s been working with the smaller handheld RECCO detector for years and is eager to add its airborne cousin to his arsenal of search and rescue tools. But he says for it to really work, people need to know they have it.
"It’s amazing how many people don’t know they have RECCO in clothes they already have. We've already run into that when asking people that are the reporting parties and things, do they have the RECCO on? And it's amazing how many people don't even know, let alone the family members that we’re talking to for the missing person."
Pierce says the detector hasn’t been called in on recent search missions in the area for that reason.
RECCO rep Daniel Howlett cautions it’s not a replacement for traditional backcountry gear and partner rescue training.
"People have to understand that if you have a RECCO reflector, an avalanche transceiver or avalanche beacon cannot find you with your reflector. They're two totally different things and it's really important that if you're going in the backcountry a lot, if you’re riding and snowmobiling a lot in the backcountry, it doesn't replace having an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe, and the education to know how to use it. This is just one more rescue tool that gives rescue workers an opportunity to help."
Winter backcountry enthusiasts like Brock Bolin welcome Two Bear’s new tool to the area’s rescue kit.
"If you have the ability to get a RECCO reflector and you live in this valley, I 100 percent recommend you do it because Two Bear will find you, guaranteed," he says.
Bolin is an accessory manager for Penco Power Products in Kalispell, which sells snowmobiles. He joined avalanche safety educators from Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center (FOFAC) recently for a public refresher class. The Friends group works with the U.S. Forest Service to offer avalanche awareness and training courses for skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.
Jenny Cloutier is an education coordinator with FOFAC. She says the number of backcountry recreators has skyrocketed in recent years, but worst case scenarios are starting to plateau.
"It's amazing the growth in the sport, and that avalanche fatalities are not increasing at the same rate really speaks to, I think, the power of the education that is happening, as well as the technology changes."