SAREX – (Now what does THAT stand for?)
(find out at the end)
The two 22 year old university students failed to show up at the agreed meeting point that afternoon. A search that evening was called through VDEM, The Virginia Department of Emergency Management. I arrived with other first responder K9 Search teams, mounted horse teams, sheriffs, technical climbing teams, and ground searchers from Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland.
Throughout the night, highly trained volunteers were planning and organizing tasks for the teams of searchers.
I saw the massive antennas needed to beef up radio signals for penetrating dense forest were already raised. I read on the information board family and friends had been interviewed for information about the lost hikers. Inside the trailer marked as the command post I saw people busily inking up maps as information poured in.
Early in the morning, teams gathered for a second briefing on the search. The crowd turned into a mass of students taking note in tiny pocket sized notepads. Any detail about the men might help in finding them. I grabbed my tiny red metal notepad and matching metal pen out of my thigh pocket and began scratching the facts in myself.
Both men were near the same age, height, and physical condition. They were experienced hikers and tended to stray from the trail. The men were outfitted in brown hiking boots and pants. Their white pickup truck was found parked at the trail head next to the AT trail. Many of the searches would start here.
Since I did not come with an operational dog team, I could be set up with a team and sent out at any moment. I made sure all of my gear was packed up and the straps adjusted on my pack. I had never taken my new camera out with all of my gear, but found the bag fit nicely over the straps of my back. I did look like a complete dork, however.
Search tasks were handed out with the coffee.
The first teams to be sent out were the signcutters (trackers) and a k9 team. The two teams worked together looking at shoe prints, disturbed vegetation, and sniffing the air.
The horse mounted teams covered many miles of trails and fire roads surrounding where the hiker may be. It would be easy for a hiker to follow the wrong trail and end up in a completely different place than they intended. I would not be surprised to find the hikers had stopped on the side of one of these trails when it had gotten dark. If so, the horse teams would find them.
I joined a ground search team from the tidewater region of the state. I lucked out with a great group of men with a professional attitude and great sense of humor.
Even before we began our assignment, calls came in that one of the hikers was found by a canine team. He was alone and separated from his friend. We waited as more information was gathered. Thankfully, the found hiker was unharmed and on his way to base. The man had no idea where his friend went after taking off in a different direction. He was still out there somewhere.
Our team piled into the truck and drove to the start of our assigned area.
The excellent colored maps of the area made it easy to follow the topographical features in our search area. Although we did find it difficult to start our assignment as many new and unmarked roads and trails snaked through the area. (A common problem with nearly all topographical maps.) We shot past our start point on a road that was supposed to dead end. Boy, did I feel like a dope. Since we were driving up to the beginning of our task, I did not pay as much attention as I should to the topography. You really cannot use a compass in the car, so observation of the surroundings is key. While walking back down the road to the start of our search area, one of the men noticed a freshly drained bottle of soda and a walking stick leaned up against a tree. We all stopped and began marking the area as a possible site for clues.
Could this walking stick and freshly drained soda be a clue?
Radios were buzzing with reports of found clues all over the mountain from the different teams. They could not all be from the ones we were looking for. Day hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts had been on the mountain. Everyone leaves something behind, even just a footprint.
Our task was a long steep drainage up to the ridge where the truck was parked. My team began picking their way up the slope at a measured distance from one another.
While the guys on my team come from the flat side of Virginia, they had no problem climbing up the very steep drainage more appropriately assigned as a task for mountain goats.
We even found a deep cave with a very slippery slope into its depths from the mouth. It was something a curious hiker may not be able to resist checking out, lose his footing, and slide into the dark.
No sign of a person here.
We moved on, climbing up the gradually steepening slope through a dense tangle of mountain laurels, intermittently soggy creek bed, and smooth loose boulders that would wobble and rock underfoot. We finally reached the trail, and the end of our task. A short rest before heading back to base was in order. The view was spectacular.
Soon after completing our first assignment, more information came in about the lost hiker. A new assignment was give to us. We quickly piled back into the car to start on a second search in a different area. Just as we were ready to begin walking our search area, calls on the radio told another team to follow the sounds of a whistle. They were closing in on someone who needed help. We sat down and waited. If the person blowing the whistle was hurt, they would need us near a vehicle.
Then, broadcast over the radio, our lost hiker was found. He had a possible broken leg and snakebite. We were ordered to return to base. Several other teams were much closer and were ordered to help with carrying the injured hiker out to safety.
The team walked right past the trailer with all of the medical gear and comfy cot to place the litter carrying the hiker on a fold out table holding the coffee pot. I smiled broadly. This guy was sure putting on a good performance, gritting his teeth and struggling against the straps. A performance it was, because he was not hurt at all.
He hadn’t even been lost.
THIS was SAREX (Search and Rescue Exercise.) A staged exercise to help everyone involved in search and rescue hone their skills for the real thing. Only the organizers of the event knew where the lost men were happily camping the night before. Everything else was done as if a real search was happening.
It turned out to be a fantastic experience. A perfect simulation of the real thing without the stress of a real search. I made lots of new friends, learned a ton, and saw how wonderfully so many different people could work together toward a single goal.
Thank you to everyone who put this thing together. I am confident this helped me get ready for when my phone does ring in the middle of the night for my first search.
PS cold fried chicken is THE thing after walking around in the woods all day.