The day began, as it often does for people who live in Jackson Hole, with the click of bindings and the start of a ski tour off Teton Pass.
Dr. David Shlim felt the pain, but not where he thought he would if he was having a heart attack. So he kept going.
Suddenly he became so short of breath he couldn’t stand, he said, recounting the Jan. 11, 2013, incident on the Fine Line, the Teton County Search and Rescue podcast. Other skiers who found Shlim, unable to stand, let alone ski, used a tarp to pull him toward a landing zone while rescuers headed his way.
Shilm meditated and calmed his mind as skiers dragged him to a waiting helicopter.
“I didn’t know if I was going to die or not, but if I did, I wanted to be prepared,” he said on the podcast.
Shlim had suffered a serious heart attack, a kind that many people don’t survive, said Stephanie Thomas, executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation.
“The helicopter was truly lifesaving, because time was not on his side,” Thomas told WyoFile.
Teton County Search and Rescue, a mostly volunteer rescue team in Jackson, is trying to increase the time it has access to a helicopter from six months to seven each year. The foundation is trying to raise $60,000 for the additional month of service, as well as for training and equipment, through a campaign it is calling Heli-Yes.
Two large donations brought the group halfway to its goal. As of April 19 the foundation had raised $7,420 of the additional $30,000 they hope to raise by May 19, Thomas said.
Currently Teton County Search and Rescue contracts a helicopter from about Nov. 1 through the end of May, Thomas said. A Forest Service airship usually arrives in the area in June for use on wildfires and rescues in Grand Teton National Park. It remains in the valley through September.
Teton County Search and Rescue can call for assistance and, if the helicopter is available, use it. The rescue team has a strong working relationship with rescuers in Grand Teton National Park and the two groups sometimes train together, Thomas said.
“It’s not ideal, it’s not a dedicated search-and-rescue helicopter, but it does mean there is at least a helicopters in the valley,” Thomas said. “Ideally we would have 12 months of dedicated service — that would be amazing. But financially that’s not really an option at this time.”
Teton County Search and Rescue used a helicopter 12 times from Oct. 30, 2016, to June 1, 2017, Thomas said. According to the Wyoming Search and Rescue Council, Teton executes more missions than any other Wyoming county, with 92 reported in 2017. The next highest was Fremont County with 44.
Rescues have evolved through the years. When Teton County Search and Rescue first formed in 1993, it didn’t have regular access to a helicopter, said Tim Ciocarlan, a member of the group since its inception and its former director. Sometimes the group went an entire year without access to one.
About 12 to 15 years ago Teton County started to pay for a search-and-rescue helicopter for three months in the winter. They eventually expanded it to six months.
The expanded coverage coincided with people skiing longer seasons and more people getting into the backcountry.
“People used to not ski [Mount] Glory until spring,” Ciocarlan said of a popular peak for backcountry users above Teton Pass. “Now they ski it every snowstorm.”
Gear developments have allowed more people to access terrain that years before was rarely skied.
“The terrain is getting wild and crazy and getting to them gets harder and harder,” Ciocarlan said.
Helicopters allow rescuers to reach and evacuate patients with critical injuries or illnesses faster and more efficiently, whether they’ve been mauled by a bear or injured in an avalanche.
Helicopters have their risks. In 2012, Teton County Search and Rescue member Ray Shriver died in a crash. Such danger is why helicopters are still only used for “life-altering or life-saving” missions, or when reaching a patient on the ground puts rescuers in danger, Thomas said.
People don’t realize how challenging and dangerous it can be to rescue a 200-pound person who can’t walk out of the backcountry, Ciocarlan said
No Teton County rescuer has ever been caught in an avalanche while on a mission, but Ciocarlan remembers rescues where they finished in the dark and people hugged and cried because conditions had been so dicey.
“They knew what they were up against out there,” he said.
The $60,000 price tag will expand service for only one year. It costs at least $32,000 a month just to have a helicopter on the ground — and more during certain times of the year, Thomas said. The money also will cover additional training and equipment like radios, special backpacks and harnesses that enable short-haul rescues.
About nine years ago the rescue team started using short haul, which allows helicopters to insert or extract people into areas a helicopter can’t land in by carrying them beneath the ship on a rope.
While the whole team is trained to work around helicopters, 12 members go through the more rigorous short-haul training, Thomas said. They practice weekly throughout the winter and must continue to certify every 90 days.
An additional month of helicopter service will make a difference, but Ciocarlan still hopes one day the team will have year-round access.
“We know there is a need for an aircraft 12 months a year,” he said. “It saves lives. There is no gray area. It’s saved multiple lives. We are making a difference. Every year someone comes home. Every year we get someone out of the backcountry – sometimes every month of the year.”