By Amy Macavinta
Sgt. James Astle currently oversees the Cache County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team, a group of about 40 volunteers who drop what they are doing when they are called to render aid — as they were Thursday afternoon when a man was injured in a snowmobile accident.
Rescue conditions that were challenging to begin with only grew in intensity, first when some of the rescuers realized the patient was someone they knew, and again when it appeared 55-year-old Chris Checketts was not going to survive.
“I was extremely proud of the way they responded,” Astle said. “Three of our best people were working on this patient.”
Rescuers were called out early in the afternoon to Cornice Ridge, west of Tony Grove Lake. A medical helicopter had already flown overhead and informed them the aircraft couldn’t get to the patients, Astle said, so it was up to Search and Rescue volunteers to reach Checketts and get him to the helicopter.
It wasn’t as simple as that, though.
Checketts was located on a slope just below the ridge. The first team into the area went up on the ridge, planning to ride back down to the patient’s location. They had a hard time maneuvering their machines through the soft, unstable snow, however. Additional teams coming in behind them did have the option to access the area from below, but that was a more technical route requiring the most skilled riders, who were still on their way to Tony Grove.
At the same time, Search and Rescue Commander Bart Esplin was in communication with dispatchers to find out what the most current avalanche conditions were.
There is risk in everything, but they can’t take undue risk, Astle said.
“We can’t compound the situation,” Astle said. “We can’t cause an avalanche just because we’re trying to get to someone.”
That first team reached Checketts at about 4 p.m. and the next hour or so was almost business as usual — provide as much care to the patient as possible, get needed rescue equipment to the area. Anchors and ropes were secured, and finally, just after 5 p.m., they began to make their descent, with Checketts packaged onto a rescue skid that resembles a toboggan, Astle said.
According to scanner traffic, Checketts’ condition had been declining, but Astle said within minutes after they moved him, he suddenly took a turn for the worse.
One member of the rescue team started CPR while another communicated through dispatchers with the helicopter team, which was well within sight less than a half a mile away, Astle said.
The rescue team and the patient were down in the bottom of a bowl and while the helicopter was so close, they were unable to fly any closer or they would not have had the proper airflow to fly out.
Astle said there was really no other choice but for the rescue team to continue CPR while moving as quickly as possible to get Checketts to the helicopter. Roughly 10 minutes later, he was in the air on his way to Logan Regional Hospital.
A somber group of volunteers still had work to do.
Checketts’ son, who had been with him through the whole ordeal, was still on the mountain with them so they needed to see him to safety. Meanwhile, others worked to retrieve equipment before returning to the command post at Tony Grove and eventually back to the valley.
The mood changed for the better about 30 minutes later when dispatchers relayed a message from the helicopter crew: Checketts was conscious and breathing.
Astle said the news was “a huge sigh of relief.”
“It really helped pick everyone up,” he said. “The adrenaline is dropping, the temperatures are dropping and it’s getting dark, and they still have to get everyone out.”
Medical privacy laws prevent hospitals from releasing additional information about Checketts’ condition. Astle said the volunteers who responded to Tony Grove on Thursday gave him the best possible chance of survival, and now it is in the doctors’ hands.