First published in the Oct. 1 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
By Jenilee Borek
The Montrose Search and Rescue Team celebrated 75 years of saving lives at Crescenta Valley Park with community members. The event, held on Saturday, Sept. 24, featured a climbing wall, vintage car show, petting zoo, food trucks and live music with the goal of raising funds for equipment and training.
The day was filled with thrilling rescue stories, and it gave locals who stopped by the chance to meet and connect with the brave men and women who volunteer countless hours of their time.
In 1947, a group of Civilian Air Defense members started what’s now known as the Montrose Search and Rescue Team to assist people who got lost or injured in the surrounding mountains. Now, the team is one of just eight nonprofit volunteer rescue teams that are affiliated with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and is ready to answer the call 24 hours a day.
The Montrose SAR Team is one of the busiest rescue organizations in the county, averaging between 65 to 100 calls per year. The team was called out 147 times in 2021. From January through July of this year, they’ve responded to 63 calls.
The group’s call volume — steadily increasing over the past few years — demonstrates just how much these volunteers are needed.
“Without them, it’d be almost impossible for our department to do the same mission,” said Sgt. John Gilbert of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who also serves as the coordinator for the Montrose SAR Team. “To have these teams that are local and therefore have better response times, as well as the local knowledge and dedication, it’s invaluable to the community and invaluable to the department.”
The volunteers who make up the Montrose SAR Team come from all walks of life. Many have full-time occupations, but train extensively together to ensure successful rescues. The volunteers become “mountain rescue” certified as reserve deputies and EMTs.
Among those mingling at the event Saturday were retired volunteers Rick Hayne and Eric Fuller, who volunteered for 45 years and 21 years, respectively. The pair recalled their intensive training, which took about two years. They had to pass a 400-word written exam on survival, mountaineering, rescue systems, trucks and weather, and a two-day field exam where they had to practice rescues.
“They would hand us a blank map of the forest with no names of peaks, trails or roads, and we had to fill in the blanks,” Fuller said.
All of the team’s missions include some degree of danger. However, the rescue attempts that involve navigating snow and ice, or swift water and technical rock rescues are more dangerous.
The training is crucial to the team’s success, but what sticks most with the volunteers are the actual rescue experiences.
Cindy Moyneur England has volunteered with Montrose SAR Team for 30 years, but she was on the other side of things before she joined the team. She was a survivor who had been rescued by the group.
One terrifying hike changed her life forever. England was one of two adults leading a group with children that set out to hike Mount Baldy. Most of the youngsters got tired, but one of them wanted to hike to the top. England also wanted to finish, so she continued on with the child while the other adult took the rest back down. She and the 11-year-old made it to the top, but the weather quickly took a turn for the worse.
A blizzard hit and visibility was blurred. They ended up on the wrong trail and were lost for two nights. Eight inches of snow fell the first night, 100 mph winds swirled around them, and the wind chill dropped to -40 degrees.
“We had no food, no water — horrible conditions. There were a couple times when I thought we won’t survive this,” England said. “I was so thirsty, that was my biggest discomfort — just no water. I was eating snow on the ground to try to hydrate myself, but little did I know I was dropping my body temperature down more and more.”
By the time rescuers found them, she couldn’t walk, and both were disoriented and airlifted to the hospital. She and the child suffered severe hypothermia and frostbite. England lost part of a toe, and the 11-year-old lost one toe and a portion of another. They survived, despite their injuries and trauma, thanks to the rescuers who were on the mission.
“It was a crazy experience, but if it hadn’t been for the efforts of search and rescue we would not have survived it,” England said.
After returning to her profession as a physical therapist, she met a client who was a member of the Montrose SAR team who got her involved.
“After an experience like that, when you come so close to not surviving, it makes you just kind of look at life again and go ‘what is the meaning of this, why am I here?’” England noted. “In addition to just having a solid faith in God, I thought this was gratuitous, that this man was here and was on the team, and I could look into it.”
Fuller, meanwhile, recounted a memorable rescue of two high school students and a pastor who also got lost in the snow while hiking. The snow covered up their tracks. The three rescuers descended a streambed and found a solitary footprint after about three hours of searching.
“The most exciting thing is when you get on a radio and say ‘we’re on tracks,’” Fuller said. When they found the lost hikers “the three of them were sitting there having their own funeral.”
The volunteers were able to share stories amid the relaxed atmosphere of the team’s 75th anniversary celebration, surrounded by throngs of community members who showed their appreciation and support. The Montrose Search and Rescue Team members’ stories highlighted the commitment, time and energy they have dedicated to changing the lives of those they rescue, and the dedication to continue the work for many decades to come.