What started off as a short hike Wednesday afternoon ended up being an all-night search that luckily had a happy ending for a Butte woman.
Thanks to 15-90 Search & Rescue, the woman, 66, who got lost in the area between Roosevelt Drive and the Basin Creek Reservoir was found safe at around 3:30 a.m. Thursday.
According to Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester, the missing person’s call came in at 8 p.m. Wednesday. It was reported the unidentified woman became separated from her husband at around 4:30 p.m., when she decided to do some exploring. She headed into a wooded area with her two dogs and had not been seen since that time.
Using ATVs and traveling by foot, 35 members of 15-90 Search & Rescue began the search, but downed trees made it extremely difficult.
Brad Belke, 15-90 commander, said many of the roads and trails the team would normally use were now impassable.
“I have never seen so many downed trees,” said Belke, who said that during the mission team members literally had to crawl over and under trees.
Night had already fallen when the rescue began, and gusty winds and a temperature that dropped to 14 degrees quickly became problematic.
“It was as dark as it could possibly be,” said Belke. “You literally could not see your hands right in front of you and that wind was whipping.”
Frank Finnegan, vice commander of 15-90, also noted the challenging terrain and deadfall.
"This is tough to walk in in the daytime but imagine it was pitch black, no moonlight and she had no flashlight or matches," Finnegan said. "I followed up with her this morning to check and see if she had any medical issues like frost bite but she said she is okay. Apparently she was able to keep her two medium sized dogs on top of her to keep her warm but she is okay and she is very, very grateful," Finnegan said.
Finnegan said the hiker was found around 3 a.m. but still had to hike out of the dead fall and she and the rescuers made it to safety around 8 a.m.
Belke noted he and the rest of his team came prepared and were dressed for the elements.
“I was wearing two parkas,” he said. “It was that cold.”
To add to the difficulty, fresh snow had covered any and all tracks.
Eventually, the search expanded and an attempt was made to use the last coordinates from her cell phone. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out because the woman had lost the phone while hiking.
The team had to rely on instinct and old-school techniques.
In a search-and-rescue career that spans four decades, it’s been Belke’s experience that while men who are lost will explore an expanded area to find their way out, women generally find the easiest passage and look for a drainage.
Using a map, the team looked for a drainage marker and lo and behold, they found one.
“Sometimes technology works for you,” Belke said, “and sometimes you have to rely on old school.”
The team’s instincts were spot on.
A group headed down a drainage, yelling out her name. The rescuers heard the dogs barking and were able to locate the woman and bring her to safety.
According to Belke, while the woman was extremely cold and dehydrated, she was otherwise okay.
“She’s lucky to be alive,” said Sheriff Lester, “no question about it.”
The sheriff noted 15-90 is a group of volunteers who drop everything and deliver life-saving service every time.
“There aren’t a lot of people who would put themselves in harm’s way to rescue a stranger in the middle of the night,” said Lester. “This is a special group and without their expertise, it could have been a tragedy.”
In case the woman had not been found, Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement had contacted Life Flight, which was on stand-by to fly the area at first light.
“Fortunately, their services were not needed,” Lester. said. “We are thankful for their offer of assistance.”
Belke is just thankful they were successful.
“At one point I was really worried we weren’t going to find her,” he said. “I’m just glad we did.”
Finnegan said the team consists of volunteers of all ages and wilderness abilities. Many of the volunteers had to take a day off work Thursday due to the long night spent in extreme weather conditions and terrain, but he said the feeling of finding a lost person and safely returning them to their home makes his 40 years of experience worth the time and exertion.
"If I were lost out there in the woods, I'd like to know that someone is out there looking for me and that's why I do this," Finnegan said.
A non-profit organization, 15-90 Search & Rescue is Butte-Silver Bow’s lone search, rescue and recovery team.
Photographer Meagan Thompson contributed to this story.
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