- Terri Hallenbeck
- Neil Van Dyke talking to rescue squad members
Six rescue squad members ventured into the woods at Pico Mountain on a warm September afternoon to practice searching for a lost person. The scenario: A fictional "grandpa" with dementia had walked away from a slope-side condo. The searchers' job was to sweep through the forest a few dozen yards apart from each other. They had to keep sight of the squad member to their left while scouring the landscape for signs of the man.
"It's not as easy at it looks," warned their instructor, Vermont search and rescue coordinator Neil Van Dyke.
Indeed, minutes later, the searchers were advancing through the dense, rugged woods at varying speeds, losing sight of each other. Some had to navigate boulders, heavy brush or sharp brambles, while others had a clearer path.
"The right is outpacing the left because of the terrain," Van Dyke called.
They paused while Van Dyke reminded them to follow the same pace. The squad members, who hailed from around the state, joked about who had gone off track.
That day, the crew found seven of the 11 clues that Van Dyke had planted as items the fictional man had supposedly lost, including a hat and a golf ball. They missed a water bottle — a valuable reminder, VanDyke said, to search all sides of a tree one passes.
As the team advanced farther up the mountain, Brian Lindner of Waterbury Backcountry Rescue said Van Dyke has a way of building camaraderie. That can pay off later when the crews respond to real-life emergencies. "He's got us working together," Lindner said.
"One of the overriding goals for the entire day is to give that face-to-face contact," Van Dyke said.
Five years ago, no one in Vermont was coordinating search and rescue operations as Van Dyke is today. Some — including Van Dyke — say that lack of coordination contributed to a deadly outcome on an Addison County hiking trail.
Nineteen-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven, a college freshman home on winter break, was hiking on the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton on January 9, 2012. When Duclos didn't return home, his mother reported him missing at about 8 p.m. Vermont State Police, citing Duclos' experience as a hiker, decided against launching a nighttime search and declined to alert local rescue crews until the following morning.
State police found Duclos' body the next day. He had succumbed to hypothermia three miles from the trailhead.
His death prompted an outcry. Family members repeatedly went to Montpelier to urge lawmakers to change the state's search protocols. Longtime search and rescue experts in Vermont, including Van Dyke, joined the chorus.
Lawmakers responded. In 2013, they created the search and rescue coordinator position within the state Department of Public Safety, established an eight-member Search and Rescue Council to review cases, and directed state police to alert local fire departments when they receive a report of a missing person.
Since then, much has changed. Crews have better training and equipment, the patchwork of Vermont rescue operations works more cooperatively, and the volunteers behind those operations feel more confident.
"It's come a long way," said Lincoln Fire Chief Dan Ober, who was heartbroken that his crew was not notified the night Duclos was reported missing.
"Things have improved a lot," echoed Erik Eriksen, chief of the neighboring Ripton Fire & First Response. "There are better protocols."
Van Dyke, a wiry, energetic 63-year-old mountaineer and backcountry skier, has been a key figure behind the changes.
He was hired as the state's first search and rescue coordinator at the end of 2013. To take the job, Van Dyke sold the Golden Eagle Resort in Stowe, which his family had run for 35 years. While hospitality was his vocation, mountain rescues have been his passion since his undergraduate days at Dartmouth College.
Van Dyke was a cofounder of Stowe Mountain Rescue, one of the state's premier technical rescue squads, more than three decades ago. He served two years as president of the national Mountain Rescue Association. Just last week, he was called on to help search the Adirondacks for a missing hiker, who was found dead.
"Selecting Neil to be the first SAR coordinator was a very good decision," said Jocelyn Stohl, a former state police lieutenant and commander of the agency's search and rescue team who retired in 2008.
Van Dyke's credibility allowed him to elevate the importance of training statewide, said Stohl, now a handler with New England K-9 Search and Rescue. Search and rescue duties had never gotten the attention they should, said Stohl. And, by 2012, such training had fallen by the wayside, she said.
"If I was there, we would not have delayed the response," Stohl said of the Duclos case. "It was a lack of knowledge about what search and rescue is all about."
Van Dyke too critiqued the response. Within a month of the death, he told state police that Stowe Mountain Rescue would have handled the situation differently.
"Given the same scenario, it is highly likely we would have initiated a night search," Van Dyke wrote in an email to a state police captain. "I think what is frustrating (but reality) is that people in trouble in the backcountry are likely to get a different response based on where the incident happens, but that is true in many areas of the country."
Van Dyke also criticized troopers' preparations for conducting the search the day after Duclos went missing. "They were dressed in cotton, had to scramble for snowshoes (ultimately did not have enough for everybody) and appeared to arrive expecting to do a roadside K-9 search," he wrote.
One of the first things Van Dyke did when he became coordinator was replace the Army surplus raincoats the state police search and rescue team wore with breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex, paid for with grants.
Vermont has a hodgepodge of rescue units with varying levels of training. They include the 20-member state police team, a dozen locally operated technical rescue squads, and scores of local fire and ambulance crews.
Van Dyke has increased training opportunities such as this month's practice at Pico. There, about 50 representatives of Vermont squads heard lectures on issues such as preserving evidence at search scenes and participated in hands-on exercises like the grid search for grandpa.
Van Dyke has eased tensions between state police and local crews over who is qualified to help with strenuous search and rescue operations, according to both camps.
"I'm definitely seeing better coordination, more playing nice and more willingness to use local resources appropriately," said Marge Fish, a member of Londonderry Technical Rescue who also serves on the state Search and Rescue Council.
"It used to be, 'We're not going to use you unless we're absolutely forced to,'" Fish said. "You'd get there and end up staying at staging. Now if we're called, we're being used as members with local knowledge of the trail system."
- Source: Vermont Search And Rescue Council.
Van Dyke improved the training available not just to technical rescue crews but to local ambulance and fire squads, said Fish.
"He put together a really good introduction to search and rescue PowerPoint and was willing to come anywhere in the state with it," she said. As a result, she said, more firefighters know not to show up for a backcountry search in full fire gear.
Lt. Matthew Nally Sr., the state police search and rescue team commander, said that training gives him greater confidence in local volunteers' ability to help with dicey backwoods searches.
"When we go to a certain area and the fire department is there ... we know who can provide what kind of help," Nally said.
Kevin Beattie, another member of Londonderry Technical Rescue, said Van Dyke also monitors incidents closely to ensure the right resources are being deployed. "Sometimes Neil calls me directly," Beattie said.
On Friday, the state Department of Public Safety will honor Van Dyke with a Commissioner's Award for "being instrumental in increasing the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Team's capabilities, membership, training and equipment."
During a break from this month's Pico Mountain training, Van Dyke sat at a picnic table on the ski area's deck, munching on cherry tomatoes and talking about changes in Vermont's practices since 2012.
The 2013 legislation requires state police and local rescue crews to notify each other when they receive a missing person report. Previously, Van Dyke said, there was no consistent policy.
"It just depended, frankly, on who answered the call," he said. "It is very clear now as to what that process is."
Lawmakers also directed the state to collect statistics about the number and types of search and rescue calls.
In 2016, the state received 111 such calls, and 36 of them prompted a response from the state police search and rescue team. Some assists don't require heading into the woods, Van Dyke said. One night, he personally guided some lost hikers to safety via cellphone.
Not every response has been flawless, said Van Dyke, who reviews incidents with the Search and Rescue Council. But no errors since he started his job appear to be directly linked to tragic results, he said. In some cases, the appropriate authorities weren't notified as quickly as they should have been, he said, but those mistakes have become less frequent.
Several deaths have occurred in recent years, mostly suicides and accidents. One 22-year-old hiker died of hypothermia in Fayston; authorities said they launched a search as soon as they were notified he was in trouble.
Stohl said she's seen the changes firsthand in her work with New England K-9 Search and Rescue. During an August 2015 search for a woman with dementia in Colchester, state police didn't hesitate to reach out to numerous teams, she said.
Stohl and her dog, Justice, found the woman alive deep in a ravine. Another team carried her out of the woods in the dark.
"There was a good response," she said. "People didn't have to think about, Do we do something or not?"
Kathy Duclos is glad that the changes she and her family lobbied for after her nephew's death are paying off. But it's also bittersweet.
"Every time I hear a report of an enormous and successful search and rescue effort, I want to feel proud of our part in improving the system," she said, "and I want to feel happy for everyone involved in the success, and I do. But I also feel anger and sadness."