‘In the Reunion Business:’ Montrose Search & Rescue Keeps Community Safe During Storm Season

Montrose Search and Rescue team members train throughout the year for rescues like this one in icy and snowy conditions.
Photo provided by Montrose SAR


Montrose Search & Rescue, a team of 25 members – reserve deputies, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and mountain rescue (MRA) certified – helps keep local hikers safe during storm season by sharing steps to take before winter hikes and, when necessary, mobilizing rescue teams to save hikers in danger. Founded around 1947, the team trains yearly in the most extreme conditions, including climbing frozen waterfalls in Yosemite. Constant exposure to changing weather conditions helps to sharpen their skills.

“If you’re comfortable navigating a frozen waterfall, you’ll be comfortable and safe in any extreme environment,” said Mike Leum, assistant director at the LA Sheriff’s Dept., of the training he does for the rescue team. “The more you’re in that environment, whether it’s in training or in riskier situations, the safer you’re going to be.”

Montrose Search & Rescue assists with local rescues, answering about 130 calls a year. The team is often asked to join forces with other departments for rescues in other areas, including Mt. Baldy where hikers oftentimes get lost, especially in bad weather. Multiple departments will arrive on scene if more resources and time are needed to rescue someone.

Last year in the case of a missing hiker who had fallen in the ice it took a couple of weeks and the collaboration of teams from across LA County to find and recover the hiker’s body. In other incidents, Leum and the team rescued members of the UCLA and USC hiking clubs when they were caught in frigid conditions.

“When we’re sent to search for and rescue someone, we’re not searching the parking lot. These people have gotten themselves into trouble at high altitudes in very risky environments. And so we have to place ourselves in that same environment in order to find or rescue them,” Leum said. “That’s part of the reason why we need to train in extreme situations.”

Some essential tools for traversing snow and ice include pick axes and crampons, spikes that attach to the bottom of heavy duty snow boots that help rescuers walk on unstable, icy ground. In deep winter, when there is three or four feet of snow on the ground that cover fresh tracks and landmarks, Leum and the team use navigational apps to help see where a person could have gone and where they are in relation to established trails.

Members of the search and rescue team always have to be prepared for surprising and quickly changing weather patterns, including being on icy roads, trails and mountains, and being in freezing temperatures with high volumes of wind and snow.

Physical training is crucial for timely rescues in challenging environments. Rescuing a person could mean carrying them, or lowering them, down a slope so rescuers need to be able to carry as well a 50-pound pack and hike in deep snow at 9,000 or 10,000 feet of elevation. In particularly dangerous situations, rescuers are taught to form a safety anchor – three people tied together – when they traverse icy slopes so if one person slips, the others can help pull him/her up. Safety anchors are also used to pull people up if there are no natural anchors, like rocks or trees, to assist in rescuing someone.

Another skill Leum teaches is ice axe arrest – how to embed a pick axe in the ice to stop from falling. Leum had to use his own ice axe to save himself last year when he punched through a thin sheet of ice and got pitched down an icy slope.

There are no illusions, Leum said, about the taxing nature of the job. To help cope with traumatic rescues, the sheriff’s department has a robust mental health support program.

“We tell people all the time, check on your teammates. Traumatic events are like a drip in a coffee cup. You never know when that one drop [goes over] the brim of the cup. And that’s when you have trouble dealing with a certain situation, when you might break down,” said Leum. “Repeated traumatic events add up and, at some point, you have to address it.”

Family is also an important support system, said Cindy England, a member of Montrose Search and Rescue for 30 years.

“It’s a huge sacrifice for a trainee’s family who watch their loved ones go out two to three days at a time,” England said. “So much goes into it; it’s a lot to ask of someone.”

Leum’s goal as a member of the Montrose Search and Rescue team is to reunite families with their loved ones.

“The common denominator for all of us is we just want to be able to help people, especially people who are experiencing possibly the worst day of their lives. I tell people all the time we’re in the reunion business. We want to reunite these people with their families. Sometimes that might mean performing a recovery just to give the family closure,” he said.

England, who joined the team after surviving freezing conditions for 48 hours on Mt. Baldy, said the biggest danger for civilians in snowy, icy conditions or in severe storms is the lack of preparedness. Most often, the people the team rescues had decided to go out for a walk or a hike and didn’t bring the proper clothing – multiple layers, crampons, warm hand and headwear, adequate food and hydration, or proper navigation apps that issue updates to account for rapidly changing weather.

“They don’t realize we have conditions just as serious in California as in Colorado or Michigan or other places with snow,” England said.

Leum said most of the bodies he has found had MICROspikes on their boots rather than the more heavy-duty crampons. MICROspikes are best for walking across icy parking lots, not for frozen trails that are more at risk of crumbling.

For severe rainstorms, like an atmospheric river, Leum said trying to cross a flooded street or roadway is never a good idea as it only takes a few inches of water for someone to drown. Leum said he always tells locals to let someone they trust know their plan and where they will be hiking, and to never hike alone.

“The longer someone spends out there exposed, that means probably the shorter amount of time they have to be able to survive that environment,” Leum told CV Weekly.

For more advice on how to stay safe for winter hikes, consult the LA County Sheriff’s Hiking Plan on the sheriff’s website: https://tinyurl.com/3zk7crxh.