Rescues up, responders fear more unprepared heading out

At any moment Drew Clymer could be pulled out of rest or running errands to answer the phone and listen to the anxious voice of a hiker on the other end, lost with daylight fading. 

Say the hiker is in good shape, has the right gear. Clymer grabs the handle of his rugged laptop and starts inputting the coordinates he receives from the caller on a map. A red dot pops up on the screen, and Clymer immediately knows where they are. He might just know every trail in all of northern Vermont.

Clymer starts to orient the lost hiker and gives them directions. Every 20 minutes, the pair regroups on the phone, and Clymer updates the map with a new red dot. With each inch Clymer’s marker moves closer to the parking lot on the map, he feels confident the hiker will get home safe. 

Sometimes it’s as simple as virtually holding someone’s hand for Clymer, search and rescue coordinator for the Vermont Department of Public Safety. His job is to field calls and send rescuers from different departments to help those in need. Other days entail lengthy, multi-unit rescues with complex maneuvers in treacherous conditions. 

And Clymer fears those hard days are on the uptick.

The number of search and rescue incidents in Vermont rose 41 percent from 100 in 2015 to 141 in 2023, according to public safety department data obtained by Community News Service. More and more people are trekking off-path without being prepared, putting themselves and first responders in danger, say those in the field.

The trend has accelerated since the peak of the pandemic, the records show. From 2015 to 2019, the trendline stayed relatively stable, with the number of cases each year not straying far from 100, according to the data. From 2020 to 2023, the difference between case numbers each year grew more pronounced, going from 88 to 131 to 115 to 141 — a 60-percent increase over the span, the records show. 

Photo courtesy Stowe Mountain Rescue. 
Members of Stowe Mountain Rescue performing a rescue during an evaluation in March 2024.
Photo courtesy Stowe Mountain Rescue. Members of Stowe Mountain Rescue performing a rescue during an evaluation in March 2024.

Much of the rise can be pinned to increases in the number of routine rescue cases — such as when someone strays from a trail and doesn’t know how to get back. Between 2015 and 2020, Vermont averaged about 68 of those calls per year, the records show. But in 2021 that figure skyrocketed to 103, according to the data. There hasn’t been less than 90 cases a year since. 

How we got the numbers
This reporter drove to a state office in Waterbury to read hard copies of yearly data reports that weren’t available digitally, then charted out the changes.

Stella Richards, education outreach coordinator for Stowe Mountain Rescue, a team formed by the town, recalls just how much urgency people had to escape their quarantine loneliness by retreating into the backcountry. Shops sold out of mountain bikes and backcountry ski gear with little to no resupply at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, she said. And now?

“There’s a whole load of toys out there that people are now going to start playing with,” Richards said. For now, Richards hasn’t seen it play out to the extent she expected, probably due to low snowpack in Vermont these past two years. Still, a shorter-term bump in the number of people needing rescue may be on the horizon.
Population trends could make that more likely, too. According to the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, the state gained over 14,000 new residents in 2021. Accounting for residents who left the state, the net gain that year was around 4,100 people.”

Clymer, who along with his state job serves as deputy chief to the Stowe rescue team, said rescuers are seeing vast unpreparedness everywhere from well-known hiking spots to the backsides of ski resorts. 

“There is a trend towards people being less prepared and finding themselves needing help,” he said.

Because Stowe Mountain Rescue team members are highly trained in technical rescue, they respond to roughly three times the number of calls as any other rescue team in Vermont, according to Clymer. From its founding in 1980 up to 2020, the team hovered around 17 to 20 calls a year, he said. In 2020, that number shot into the 40s and has climbed in the years since, he said. 

Search and rescue authorities divide calls into two classes: cases where rescuers know where the person is and cases where they do not.

Photo courtesy Stowe Mountain Rescue. A member of Stowe Mountain Rescue with a person in a litter, a type of stretcher.
Photo courtesy Stowe Mountain Rescue. A member of Stowe Mountain Rescue with a person in a litter, a type of stretcher.

When someone’s whereabouts are unknown, all hands are on deck. Troops are pulled out of sleep, off the roads and back from vacation. Game wardens become available, and first responders are notified. For the most part, these calls involve people with known medical conditions and those who are very young or old. 

Calls where rescuers know the subject’s location are widely more common.  Every year since 2016, the number of this kind of rescue has been more than double that of cases involving missing people, according to state data.
When Clymer takes a call from someone in need, he tries to identify the gravity of the situation by asking questions about age, clothing, equipment, weather conditions and how many people need help. The survey is important, he said, to prevent rescuer fatigue and treat each case individually. 

Incidents usually involve more than one person. This year, close to 100 people needed help out of 40 rescue incidents Clymer had recorded as of early May. Of the people who are lost and not part of a vulnerable population, recreationalists make up a large majority.

Many of those recreationalists found themselves at the backside of Killington Resort in Brewers Brook, more than 2 miles from any access road. In January, Clymer received multiple calls a week from folks who needed assistance getting out of relatively similar spots, including a group of 23 on Jan. 20.

Most ski rescue calls come from Killington and Stowe, said Clymer, as they are the most popular mountains for tourists to enjoy fresh powder on the backside.

Once the snow finally came at the start of this year, Clymer said he received 13 calls in one weekend — all from Stowe and Killington. They weren’t calls from experienced backcountry skiers. Instead, the calls came from resortgoers who had skied out of bounds. 

Clymer said that at Killington, it is as easy as taking a lift up and then ducking a few ropes. That’s what happened with the group of 23 rescued in January, who violated policy and ignored signs, a rep from Killington Ski Resort told media at the time.

What skiers like those don’t realize, said Clymer, is that once they duck the ropes, they are stuck in a back bowl miles from the nearest access road. 

“They just don’t realize that a mile from a road is just like it was 200 years ago — and cold and dark and nobody’s around,” Clymer said. 

Another thing most aren’t aware of is just how long it takes rescuers to reach those in need, who may not be prepared for the delay.

“A lot of people think we’re going to drop out of a helicopter and they won’t miss their dinner reservation,” Clymer said. Too many show a lack of respect for the conditions, remoteness and harsh weather as well, he said.

From 2009 to 2018, an average of four people a year died from exposure to cold air or water, according to a 2021 report from the Vermont Department of Health, not including those who fell through ice and drowned. Between 2012 and 2018, there was an average of 110 cold-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits, the report says.

Hypothermia is a risk throughout the year, not just in winter months, Richards said. It can sneak up on people during the shoulder seasons — when it seems warmer than it is — if you get wet from rainfall and night sets in, Richards said. That’s why a dry base layer and some form of protection against the elements are key items in her pack no matter the time of year. 

A source of light, first aid kit, a spare power bank, food, water and warmth are other essentials Richards urges people to bring on every trip. 

“Carrying certain pieces of equipment not only makes you safe, but it also turns you into a resource,” Richards said. 

Clymer said agencies in Vermont don’t charge for rescue. Most people rescued by the Stowe Mountain agency make a donation after, Richards said. 

But some people think those whose recklessness gets them stranded should pay up.

Back in February, the East Burke Volunteer Fire Brigade suffered mechanical failures while trying to free a vehicle stuck in over 3 feet of snow up by the abandoned radar base in East Haven. Many community members took to their keyboards to push for charging the trio. So did someone from the brigade.

A post from the group’s Facebook page said the crew would only support rescues when requested by an emergency agency or someone involved was suffering from a medical issue or injury. “Any rescues made that are found to be of willful ignorance or disregard, the individuals will be responsible for the cost of the recovery. The tax payers should not hold the burden of others ignorance,” the post read. (Town administrator Jim Sullivan said the local agency would still respond to any incident.)

New Hampshire has been asking negligent hikers to repay the cost of their rescue since 2008 and is one of the few states that does so. Every year, authorities there send roughly 6 percent of the hikers they rescue a bill, citing negligence or a lack of preparation, according to Backpacker magazine.

But Richards said charging for rescue might make people hesitate to call for help, leading to dangerous emergencies that could have been prevented.

“If people know that they’re going to face a bill, they are going to think twice before calling,” Richards said. 
Clymer and Richards both stressed the importance of creating a judgment-free zone to break the stigma around seeking help. About once a week, Clymer is on the phone with someone who has lost the trail, giving them verbal instructions on how to get out safely. In these fairly simple rescues, something could easily go wrong if the person in need waits to call. 

“The earlier we are involved in a situation that has gone wrong for whatever reason,” said Richards, “the simpler it is.”

(The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)