Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Stanley seeks to start search-and-rescue team

Friends of deceased snowboarder criticize rescue effort

Express Staff Writer

Friends of Jared Spear, a Stanley man who died after triggering a wet-snow avalanche on Castle Peak July 2, are leading efforts to form an official search-and-rescue team in Custer County.

During a meeting with local law enforcement agencies in Stanley on Monday morning, several of Spear's friends criticized the Custer County Sheriff's Department for its limited role in the search and recovery of Spear's body from the peak in White Cloud Mountains.

Spear's friends were responsible for organizing the search and locating his body. They felt the sheriff's office could have done more in the early stages of the search and displayed poor communication throughout the ordeal. They also blasted Custer County Sheriff Tim Eikens for providing information to the media before members of the search party had conducted their own reports of the incident.

Eikens commended the search party, but also reminded all in attendance that his office was not notified that Spear was missing until the afternoon of July 6. He added that his office did all it could under the circumstances.

"Before we put anybody at risk (in a search process), we have to know all of the information, and there wasn't a lot of information," he said, adding that he did not even know the identities of the people in the search party.

Addressing the communication issue, Custer County sheriff's deputy Mike Talbot said it was not intentional, as technical difficulties hampered radio communications.

But Eikens did not want to argue about what happened, and focused instead on how to improve search-and-rescue efforts in the future.

"We're here out of respect for Jared," Eikens said. "We're trying to make something positive out of something negative.

"This is not fun, it's a traumatic event ... but we need to support each other, and get your people to become part of the team."

Custer County, unlike Blaine County, does not have an official search-and-rescue team that acts in conjunction with the sheriff's office.

The search party—comprised of 10 of Spears friends—found his body in the early morning hours of July 7. Upon discovering he had been missing for several days, they organized an impromptu search party on the afternoon of July 6. A reconnaissance flight over the area on the afternoon of July 6 located Spear's truck at a Castle Peak trailhead—deep in the White Cloud Mountains—and spotted avalanche debris from a large wet slide on the peak's north face. Not knowing whether Spear was alive or dead, the party coordinated an all-night effort that included travel on foot and motorbikes. Spear was found in a boulder field about a thousand feet below the summit.

He was 31 years old.

According to a report written by Sean Tajkowski, who was a member of the search party, the avalanche ran about a thousand feet through steep, rocky terrain. Tajkowski said Spear was never buried by the debris, and was not immediately caught by the slide. He added that Spear filmed part of his descent with a hand-held video camera, and that the recovered footage supports his conclusions.

Pete Isner, Custer County deputy coroner and a member of the Stanley Police Department, said Spear died from trauma suffered in the slide. Isner said his investigation remains open since he has not received all of the information from the field, but he believes Spear died soon after the slide, squashing any rumors that he may have survived as long as 24 to 48 hours after the accident.

Kirk Bachman, founder of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, acted as the coordinator of the search for Spear. He did not criticize the sheriff's office and expressed his support of the creation of a Custer County search-and-rescue team. He also commended Eikens for being supportive of such an endeavor.

"The sheriff's office is the legal authority on any search, and we want to work with you guys," he said.

Eikens said when he first came into office two years ago he tried to create a Custer County search-and-rescue team but found little interest from local residents.

After three hours of discussion, which included the full reading of a separate report prepared by Bachman and Tajkowski, Talbot passed around search-and-rescue applications. Almost all of the dozen or so citizens in attendance filled out an application.

Talbot encouraged those who wished only to lend resources, such as all-terrain vehicles, horses, boats or aircraft to search-and-rescue missions, to sign up and specify their potential contributions.

"We're moving in the right direction," Bachman said during a break in the meeting. "We'll hold more meetings and focus on training and better communication."

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