ST. GEORGE — Winter conditions in Zion National Park can change rapidly and rescue is not guaranteed. Park ranger Vance Swett told St. George News visitors must be more prepared for unexpected emergencies.

Zion National Park Ranger Vance Swett discusses the challenges of Search and Rescue, Zion National Park, Utah, Jan. 26, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

“We have a pretty skilled and talented rescue team and we’re going to do everything we can in order to help you out and pull you out of that dangerous situation, but we can’t promise and we can’t guarantee that we’re going to be able to do it,” Swett said. “If we can’t safely accomplish the mission, we’re going to hold off and wait until we can. So recreating here is your responsibility and you need to be prepared for changing conditions. And what happens if you do get stuck and we can’t rescue you right away?”

In a typical year, Zion responds to more than 100 calls that result in search and rescue operations. Park spokesman Jonathan Shafer told St. George News that each operation is different. He said they range from operations that require technical rope rescue to treating injuries for ambulatory patients. 

“Each has its own risks and our highly trained search and rescue team is prepared to respond year-round,” Shafer said. “It is important to remember that conditions here can change rapidly, and rescue is not guaranteed. Your safety is your responsibility.”

Zion National Park’s increasing popularity has brought challenges, but Swett said, “It’s totally understandable. This is one of the most unique, incredible places in the United States, and we’re happy to be here and help protect it.”

He said park law enforcement officers go through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glencoe, Georgia, for the National Park Service. Some rangers like himself are also park medics; the closest equivalent would be an intermediate EMT. 

Swett added that the rangers typically have monthly search and rescue training in Zion National Park. 

Search and rescue team training at Zion National Park assembles the inflatable boat used by in The Narrows, Zion National Park, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Colton Johnston for the National Park, St. George News

“The training varies pretty wildly between high angle search and rescue, swift water rescue training, basic carry-outs and incident command systems,” Swett said.

Most recently, rangers have been focusing on winter skills. Swett added they have been training on complications that arise in the winter time, such as how to build a shelter on top of the snow, using anchors like pickets, dead man anchors and ice screws. Plus, they are training on the complications of getting a patient out, like using a sked on horizontal or vertical terrain.

The search and rescue team also trains on snowmobile operations for the plateau at higher elevations, such as the Kolob area of Zion National Park, where a snowmobile is needed for access. 

“We typically have a few of those rescues every year where we need to utilize the snowmobiles in order to get people out of the situation that they’re in,” Swett said. 

Snow covers the cliffside of Zion National Park, Utah, Jan. 7, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Willie and Rick Jorgensen, St. George News

Swett stressed it’s crucial to let someone know where you’re going and when you’re supposed to be back if going into the backcountry.

“If you don’t, it will be a lot longer for us to realize that you’re gone,” he said. “And in the wintertime, because of changing environmental conditions, the quicker we can respond, the more likely for a good outcome.”

Also, winter search and rescue presents a lot of unique complications. Swett said that many people often run into “very deep, impassable snow” when they attempt the hike from Kolob Canyons down to the park’s Grotto Trailhead. Swett said they must use snowmobiles to get stranded hikers out and back to safety.

Swett recalled a rescue a year ago in the park where a group of hikers in The Narrows were trying to hike out of the Subway area. He said the group spent a freezing night unintentionally in the canyon. Zion search and rescue personnel worked closely with the Utah Department of Public Safety, flew a helicopter and hoisted the hikers out.

“But it could have gone a lot worse than it did. One of the patients was severely hypothermic,” Swett said. “And if we weren’t able to act as quickly as we did, it might not have gone as well.”

To help with the strain of more visitation, a Cedar City business has stepped in to assist with purchasing two new snowmobiles.

Zachary Almaguer, director of marketing and communications of the Zion Forever Project, confirmed that D & P Performance provided a discount so the nonprofit could purchase two new backcountry snowmobiles for the park. Theo snowmobiles will ensure safer operations for both rangers and injured visitors. He said they are housed in the Zion National Park Emergency Operations Center and come out as needed.

Those interested in joining the search and rescue team may contact Zion National Park and apply at this website. Applicants must be legally authorized to work in the United States. They interview with a park ranger to explain their interest and pass an arduous work capacity test (also known as a pack test). The park doesn’t provide housing for search and rescue team members. 

Applicants do not need prior search and rescue experience. Responders can be backpackers, climbers, cannoneers or professional first responders. The park usually onboards new members in the winter and spring. The park’s search and rescue often works with the Utah Department of Public Safety and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and its search and rescue members.

The first rescue of 2024 occurred on Jan. 26 when Zion National Park’s response involved more than 20 search and rescue team members, including emergency medical technicians, paramedics and the park ambulance. A San Diego, California, man appeared to have experienced a heart attack. 

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