Two Bear Air rescues skier in Sawtooths

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Two Bear Air crew members with their twin-engine Bell 429 helicopter.

A backcountry skier from Bozeman, Montana, who fell and injured himself in the Sawtooth Range southwest of Stanley Sunday, is lucky Custer County Search and Rescue (CCSAR) volunteers and a helicopter from his home state were able to coordinate in a nighttime rescue.

Ben Vandenbos, 29, was skiing alone west of a Redfish Lake trailhead on April 16 when he fell at the base of Horstmann Peak, injuring his face and head. He lost consciousness and, when he reawakened 2-3 hours later, realized he had also injured his right leg at the knee, according to a CCSAR news release.

Unable to put weight on his leg and ski out, Vandenbos tried his cellphone and was able to contact friends in the Sun Valley area. The friends called Custer County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) with GPS coordinates just after 8 p.m., and Sheriff Stu Lumpkin activated the Sawtooth Search and Rescue (SAWSAR) unit at 8:32 p.m.

With darkness rapidly approaching, deep snow in the area and a weather front moving into Stanley Basin, the Incident Commander, CCSO Deputy Brandyn Knight, called in Two Bear Air from Kalispell, Montana.

Meanwhile, several SAWSAR volunteers (Sara and Chris Lundy and Matt Weiland) skied in to the mountains toward the accident scene in an attempt to reach Vandenbos before the helicopter in case weather closed in and a helicopter rescue proved impossible, SAR Coordinator Levi Maydole said. Vandenbos was soaking wet from the slushy springtime snow and in danger of hypothermia, said Maydole. He had tried but not succeeded in building a warming fire.

A SAWSAR snowmobile crew (Gary Cvecich and Tony Herlod) stood by to extract Vandenbos if the helicopter had to turn back. Also assisting Knight was his wife Kelly and Blakely Adkins, a friend of Vandenbos from Wood River Valley. SAWSAR volunteer Gary Gadwa provided help with radio communications.

A Two Bear Air Rescue helicopter was dispatched at 8:37 p.m. and due to the long flight did not reach the scene where Vandenbos was waiting for rescue until 12:38 a.m. on April 17. The Bell 429 helicopter is equipped to operate at high altitudes and in the dark and uses a rescue hoist to extract patients from difficult terrain while hovering. The helicopter crew hoisted Vandenbos into the ship minutes after arriving and flew him to safety.

The Bell 429 gives the Two Bear Air Rescue team the ability to safely perform rescues in remote places where they may not be able to land a helicopter within miles.

“He was cold and glad to see them,” Maydole said of Vandenbos.

The helicopter landed in a large parking area off Highway 75 that Stanley locals call the Kmart parking lot. There it rendezvoused with the Stanley ambulance, which transported Vandenbos to St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center south of Ketchum.

“Custer County Sheriff’s Office would like to thank all those involved in this operation,” Maydole wrote in the news release. Eleven CCSAR volunteers participated. “A special thank you to the personnel of Two Bear Air.”

Two Bear Air

Two Bear Air Rescue provides search and rescue services, working in conjunction with ground ambulances and air ambulance services coordinating transfer of backcountry accident victims for transport to local hospitals. Rescue missions are under the jurisdiction of the Flathead County Sheriff while on missions within Flathead County, Montana.

The service is offered free of charge in the helicopter’s service area, which includes mountainous areas of Montana and Idaho. Custer County Sheriff’s Office has called in Two Bear Air for help on prior search and rescue missions and has never had to pay a cent for the service, Maydole said.

Using the most advanced technology, the ultimate mission is to save lives. Whitefish philanthropist Michael Goguen pays all costs of this program leaving zero cost for the taxpayers. This includes the purchase of the helicopters, all maintenance and operations costs, hangar facilities, paying pilots and crewmembers and funding extensive training.

Two Bear Air Rescue began flying missions in January 2012. The Bell 429 began flying missions in November 2013.

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