After fall, Montana ER doc now helps rescuers
On Aug. 3, 2014, late in the afternoon, Dr. David Lehnherr lay in a shelter near Black Canyon Lake, high in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, all alone.
He had had a nasty fall and a long tumble down a rocky slope earlier in the day, and he had sustained several serious injuries to his legs, his ribs and his head. His hiking companion had left him there while he walked out in search of help, but it was getting dark and the weather was taking a turn for the worse.
Lehnherr, who had worked as an ER doctor before becoming a radiologist at Billings Clinic, wasn’t sure how bad his injuries were, but he had told his friend before he left that if worse came to worst, he wanted his family to know how much he loved them all.
As he lay there by himself in the gathering dusk, thinking about his injuries, he also began imagining getting struck by lightning or maybe found by a bear.
“I was trying to be rational, but it was a little bit difficult being out there,” he said.
Then, shortly after dark, he heard someone speak words he will never forget: “Hello. I’m Ivan. I’m from search and rescue.”
It was Ivan Kosorock, accompanied by his wife, Anne, joined shortly by Scott Bowser, another member of the Red Lodge Search and Rescue team. They gave him what aid they could and spent the night with him, until a helicopter arrived early in the morning.
It made Lehnherr a big believer in Red Lodge Search and Rescue, which he joined a month or so after his own rescue, and he has also contributed financially to the organization.
“It was one of those things,” he said. “I knew they were out there and were available, but I wasn’t really aware of how the organization worked. But boy, when you need them, you need them.”
Red Lodge Search and Rescue is hoping other people—even those not quite so highly motivated as Lehnherr—will turn out to support the organization on Friday, June 16, during a fundraising event at Red Lodge Ales.
The fundraiser, set for 7-11 p.m., will feature a presentation and book-signing by mountain-climbing legend Conrad Anker and music by Tom Catmull’s Last Resort.
That same weekend, for the first time, Red Lodge Search and Rescue will be hosting the Montana Search and Rescue Rendezvous, a training event for search and rescue units from across the state.
“We’re bringing in trainers from all over the place,” said Jon Trapp, the assistant fire chief in Red Lodge and head of the search and rescue division. They will be offering instruction in swift-water rescue, tracking, wilderness survival, high-angle rope rescue and more.
Trapp said the group decided to pair the fundraiser with the training weekend to give people another reason to attend the event, and to build local support for the agency.
“We took it on pretty hard this year,” he said. “We kind of took it to a new level.”
By law, the sheriff’s department in each county is in charge of search and rescue, but in Carbon County the sheriff delegated the duty to Red Lodge Fire Rescue, the mostly volunteer fire department whose three units are fire, EMS and search and rescue.
The department has six year-round, full-time employees, augmented by another six seasonal employees and about 100 volunteers among the three divisions. Trapp said it made sense to put search and rescue under the fire department.
“It’s got a lot of the same people,” he said. “It’s got a lot of economical and efficiency savings. Plus, it opens up a big pool of volunteers.”
Lehnherr lives in Billings but also has a place in Red Lodge, where he is spending more and more time. He said volunteers meet once a month for training on mapping, communications and similar skills, and then at another monthly meeting, usually on a weekend morning, they undergo hands-on training with ropes, litters and other gear.
Trapp said search and rescue generally handles a dozen to two dozen calls a year, most often involving visitors to the Beartooth Mountains but also the Pryor Mountains and some “urban” calls, as for instance when someone in a Carbon County town files a missing person report and there’s a reason to believe the person might be lost.
The training rendezvous is expected to attract between 100 and 150 people and will be based out of Red Lodge Middle School, Trapp said.
Lehnherr will be volunteering at the rendezvous, helping out with a wilderness first-aid class. His exposure to wilderness first-aid on that August day in 2014 began when he and his friend decided to hike to the top of Beartooth Mountain, near Black Canyon Lake.
His friend was into peak-bagging and this ascent was to be one of those “quick and light trips,” as Lehnherr put it. It started well enough. They hiked up to Black Canyon Lake and established a bivouac, planning to do Beartooth Mountain early the next morning.
It turned out to be a fine morning and they reached the summit by 9 or 9:30 a.m., spent a little time at the top and then began making their way down. Lehnherr came to the head of a steep gulley, which he thought he could reach by traversing a short, narrow stone ledge.
His handholds looked good, too, but as soon as he put his weight on the ledge, a large chunk of the rock that was part of one handhold gave way. He dropped about 15 feet through the air, hit the steep, rock-and-boulder-strewn slope and tumbled another 100 feet or so, finally coming to rest on a gravelly flat spot.
He said his friend did not see the fall, only heard the loud expletive that Lehnherr screamed out when he fell off the ledge. After he came to rest, he shouted back to his friend.
“I hollered, ‘I’m OK,’ which was not really the complete truth.”
He was in a good deal of pain, with sore ribs, a thigh hematoma and more than a few cuts and bruises on his face and skull. He couldn’t rock hop and he could barely bend his leg, so it was slow going, and every time he bent over his nose bled. Realizing it would take days to hike out at the pace he was able to go, he activated his SPOT beacon, which sent an SOS with his GPS coordinates to Red Lodge Search and Rescue.
They reached their bivouac late in the afternoon. On the way, they saw a single-engine plane that made some passes overhead. They waved to it when they could and the plane, after dipping a wing, flew back over the mountains. They weren’t positive they’d been seen or whether the plane was there because of the beacon, but it was.
Trapp said the two spotters in the plane, owned by a search and rescue volunteer, had hoped to drop a bag with a radio, food and water, but they were forced back to Red Lodge by the deteriorating weather before they could do so. The “hasty team” of three, meanwhile, was by then headed up the Lake Fork trail, bound for the south end of Black Canyon Lake, a hike of more than eight miles.
They made contact with Lehnherr’s friend about fours hours later, then made their way to the bivouac. There had been hopes of a night rescue by helicopter, but it was too dark by then, so the team assessed and treated Lehnherr’s injuries as well as they could, made him comfortable and spent the night with him, meanwhile staying in touch with an incident command team.
Red Lodge Search and Rescue often makes use of St. Vincent Healthcare’s HelpFlight helicopter, or calls on the 40th Helicopter Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, but neither resource was available that day. Instead, Lehnherr was rescued by medical helicopter from Cody, Wyo., which landed at 6 a.m.
“Everybody was just amazingly professional,” Lehnherr said, referring to the search and rescue team, the pilot and the two nurses who came with the helicopter. In addition to the thigh hematoma, he ended up with a broken fibula in the other leg, plus the dislocated ribs and head injuries, some of which required surgery later.
Lehnherr said he’s close to fully recovered, and still extremely grateful. He was asked whether, in addition to his volunteer work and monetary contributions, he spreads the word about the work done by Red Lodge Search and Rescue.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Whenever I can.”
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.