New Teton County rescue helicopter to save lives year-round

The community raised $7.25 million for the chopper, which could speed up response times in the backcountry.
A rescue helicopter flies over the field at the base of Snow King, demonstrating what's known as a "short-haul" rescue. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

by | May 25, 2023 | Recreation

Teton County recently became the first in Wyoming to buy a full-time rescue helicopter. In a hub for backcountry adventure, the new chopper could help save people trapped and injured in the backcountry. 

Last July, Schilling was out for a mountain bike ride before work on Snow King when his pedal caught on a log. 

“I hit the ground pretty hard and ended up breaking nine ribs and puncturing a lung,” said Schilling, the pathways coordinator for Jackson and Teton County. “I instantly knew I was going to need help getting out.”

Brian Schilling (left) and Ted Kyle, a local rescuer, at a Wednesday celebration of the new chopper. The two were together when Schilling got hurt. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

And Schilling was in luck. A helicopter was available for the county’s search and rescue team to come haul him out. 

“I was really fortunate,” he said.

A scramble

Until now, Teton County Search and Rescue hasn’t owned its own helicopter. The team has leased a full-time ship in the winter and spring, but — in the summer and fall — it borrows one from the U.S. Forest Service, which isn’t always free at a moment’s notice.

If the chopper wasn’t available, rescuers would have to carry patients out by foot or on a four-wheeler — an often bumpy ride for someone with potentially life-threatening injuries.

“Before we were scrambling to find the right resource when we didn’t have our contract [helicopter] here,” said Albert “AJ” Wheeler, one of the county’s rescuers. 

But that’s all about to change, since the community recently raised $7.25 million to buy the chopper, which will be free 365 days a year. This, Wheeler said, means faster and more consistent rescues. 

It also comes in a time when rescue calls are at all-time highs. Last year saw 136 calls, which is almost double what that number was a decade ago. Wheeler said calls come from skiers and mountain bikers, as well as hunters and horseback and ATV riders.

“People are going further and further into the backcountry to pursue their passions, their sports, and unfortunately sometimes it goes array,” he said.

Mission accomplished

On Wednesday, over 100 community members gathered under Snow King to celebrate the successful fundraiser, deemed “Mission Critical.” In less than a year, search & rescue received around 2,000 donations to fund the multi-million dollar purchase.

A helicopter flies over Snow King. It’s demonstrating a “short-haul” rescue. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Oliver Klingenstein was one supporter. He works at the local Darwin Ranch — the most remote guest ranch in the lower 48. 

“I’m really happy to see the community backing [the helicopter],” Klingenstein said. “If our guests get hurt, they’ll evac us.” 

A lot of those rescues happen through “short-hauls,” which the search and rescue team demonstrated at the Snow King gathering. A chopper flew a rescuer and a pretend patient —  dangling on a rope a hundred feet below — down to the grassy field at the base.

Short-hauls like these don’t happen too often this close to town.

“Most of the time that we’re using this technique it’s because we’re in territory where we can’t land the helicopter,” explained Wheeler.

Schilling, the mountain biker, said seeing the demonstration triggered strong emotions for him that he hasn’t felt in a while, since he was short-hauled himself off of Snow King. 

“They’re positive emotions because I have a really good outcome,” he said, tearing up. “But it was really exciting and emotional to see.”

Schilling said, with the new helicopter, he hopes more injured people will have good outcomes like him. 

The chopper will arrive by this October and be stationed at the search and rescue hangar off of Highway 22.

In addition to Teton County rescue operations, the helicopter will be used to respond to natural disasters, fight local wildfires and help out neighboring counties in need.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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