Back in May, when Pete Nielsen was planning a trip to the Tetons, he came across a free app that could be used during an emergency in the Jackson Hole backcountry. He didn’t think he’d have to use it, but downloaded it anyway because you never know.
He ended up using it this weekend in Grand Teton National Park and may well have saved someone’s life.
The BackcountrySOS app, released in 2018 by the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation, allows someone to use their mobile device to quickly and accurately provide their status and location to 911 dispatch in case of an emergency. Nielsen found the setup to be very easy—there are no logins or accounts to set up—even for people like him who, he admits, are not tech savvy. All you have to do is download the app and it’s ready to use. Though the user has to have cellular service, the signal requires only the bare minimum. This allows someone to use the app where there is no data service and where a signal is too weak for a voice call.
This is precisely what happened with Nielsen, who works for FedEx at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. On Friday evening, August 9, he and six friends were at their campsite in upper Garnet Canyon when a woman came stumbling into camp. The woman, 28-year-old Nergui Enkhchineg from Mongolia who worked in the area, had fallen down a rocky snowfield. Nielsen said she was soaking wet, hypothermic, and could barely walk.
“Everyone tried to call 911 but we were too far up in the canyon and couldn’t get service,” Nielsen said. “So we told a couple of hikers to call 911 once they got low enough. But I didn’t know if she was going to get through the night due to shock and hypothermia. They didn’t have a sleeping bag and didn’t even have a headlamp. The seven us put her in the tent, put some dry clothes on her, and then stuffed her in a mummy bag.”
That’s when he decided to use the BackcountrySOS app, setting in motion a swift response from emergency crews.
“A half hour later, a helicopter came up. It was crazy, like something out of a movie,” Nielsen said. “If we had waited for those people to hike down, the helicopter never would’ve gotten there because it was getting dark. And we didn’t have enough sleeping bags for everyone.”
Using coordinates generated by BackcountrySOS, a short-haul crew located the injured party via Teton Interagency Helicopter just seven minutes before the so-called “pumpkin hour,” or the cutoff due to darkness. Responders were able to successfully extricate the patient to get the medical help she required.
Nielsen said he was just happy that he and his friends were able to help, and that he had found and downloaded BackcountrySOS.
You can download the app here. The app works only in Teton County of Wyoming and Idaho, and does not generate any revenue for the Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to serving Teton County residents and visitors with professional response during emergencies in the backcountry.