Archived Outdoors

Backcountry guardians: Documentary highlights Haywood SAR’s lifesaving impact, shows hikers how to stay safe

An image from the “Safe and Found” documentary shows the Haywood County Search and Rescue Team in action. Jester Wallis Productions photo An image from the “Safe and Found” documentary shows the Haywood County Search and Rescue Team in action. Jester Wallis Productions photo

As 23-year-old David Crockett opened his eyes to day two of sub-freezing temperatures in the snow-covered Shining Rock Wilderness, he had no idea that, seven years later, he’d be telling his story on film.

He wasn’t even sure he’d survive the next day. 

“I knew that there was 0% chance that we’d be found alive,” Crockett said in the trailer for “Safe and Found,” a film highlighting the Haywood County Search and Rescue Team that premieres next week.

Crockett’s story, which unfolded after a wrong turn on a day hike nearly cost him and his hiking companion their lives, is one of three tales of high-profile rescue efforts woven into the one-hour film from Charlotte-based Jester Wallis Productions. The documentary will be shown publicly for the first time during an event from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, at the Haywood Community College auditorium in Clyde.

In a Nov. 22, 2023, episode of “Beyond the Trail,” the podcast he does with Julie Gayheart, the other half of Jester Wallis Productions, filmmaker Austin Wallis said he wants the film to be entertaining, but also educational. In addition to the stories of those on the receiving end of rescues, the movie is packed with footage of the SAR team in action and interviews with the team members themselves.

“You’re going to see what happens when people are coming to find you and those processes, and that excites me because that’s the educational component,” Gayheart agreed in the podcast. “That is what’s going to make people think, ‘Okay, do I have enough clothing? Okay, do I have enough food? Can I get warm?”

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A story to tell

Rescuing someone who’s lost in the wilderness is no easy task. Between on-the-ground searchers, command center staff and any aerial support the effort requires, a rescue operation can involve dozens of people. Responders must have intimate knowledge of the trails and terrain, rock-solid training to carry out a methodical search and high-level outdoor skills and stamina to keep from becoming a rescue liability themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, they must have a willingness to help. The Haywood County SAR Team, whose members are respected throughout the region for their skills and impressive record of successful missions, is an all-volunteer crew. Members give their time away for free and supply their own gear, typically valued at around $1,000.

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The SAR team carries out a winter training exercise in Middle Prong Wilderness. Haywood SAR photo

“It’s not always easy,” said team member Nancy East. “We have an app on our phone that squawks at us when we have something we have to go out and respond to. It’s never at an opportune time. It’s never convenient. But it is a calling. I can’t imagine ignoring that call.”

Over the years, East has participated in dozens of rescues, but a 2018 incident with an unhappy ending was perhaps the most personally impactful. Rescuers spent a week searching for missing Ohio woman Susan Clements only to find her body less than a mile from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The experience struck a chord with East, who had recently lost her own mother. It was core to her 2021 book,  “Chasing the Smokies Moon.”

In summer 2022, Gayheart attended one of East’s book readings in Waynesville. After the event, the two met for beers at Frog Level Brewimg. Gayheart told East that she and Wallis were starting a film production company and wanted to do some pro bono work related to preventative search and rescue.

“They really wanted to highlight, just kind of focus on, a singular search and rescue team to use as the background of the story,” East said, “and then to highlight some of the searches that we have been involved in either in this county or in the instance of Susan Clements in the [Great Smoky Mountains National] Park to, through storytelling, show people what can happen to those who least suspect it and how you can avoid becoming that next search.”

The project that would later be titled “Safe and Found” was born.

Paying it forward

The film isn’t about wagging fingers in the faces of those who have already found themselves in compromising situations. Rather, it’s about telling their stories and drawing out lessons that viewers can take with them next time they hit the trail. And, as a pro bono project, it’s also about raising money and awareness for the SAR team’s nonprofit partner, the WNC Wilderness Safety Fund.

“We’re looking for people to walk away with a better understanding of what could happen to them,” said team member and Wilderness Safety Fund founder Bill Zimmerman. “Because everybody thinks, ‘This wouldn’t happen to me, I’ve heard those stories on TV,’ but all the people involved in these have just been normal hikers, and things happen. Things just happen. So we want them to walk away with, ‘OK, now I have a better understanding, so I want to be better prepared.’”

Zimmerman established the Wilderness Safety Fund in 2020 to strengthen the shoestring on which the SAR team operates. The inspiration, he said, came from a 2019 incident in which he hopped into a truck with other SAR volunteers responding to an incident only to realize they didn’t even have a gas card to fill the truck’s tank.

He formed the nonprofit as a tool to accept donations toward the SAR program, hoping to raise money for gear, equipment and training for the existing team and to eventually expand the roster of services to develop and equip specialized squads such as swiftwater, drone and dive teams.

The first four years have proven successful. Subjects are often surprised to discover there’s no bill coming in response to the rescue effort, and they’re always grateful. With the Wilderness Safety Fund in place, rescuers can slip them a card with information about how to express their gratitude financially, should they wish to. In addition to allowing the team a reserve fund for emergencies, donations have funded several vital trainings and key pieces of equipment that allow the team to expand its impact. A recently purchased titanium basket equipped with a mountain bike tire and a disc brake now makes carrying people out of the backcountry much easier. Swiftwater rescue gear and training allowed the team to help search for the missing after Tropical Storm Fred in 2021, and two new drones  make it easier to search large areas, even when helicopters aren’t available or can’t fly.

Zimmerman recalls one recent incident when the team was looking for a woman who was lost near the Blue Ridge Parkway. As the crew prepared for a full-scale search, the drone operator noticed a hat on the aerial feed.

“I said … ‘Let’s go from here, across the hat, directly below the hat and see what we find,’” said Zimmerman. “And there she was.”

“I think that was the first find we’ve had with a drone, and since then we found a couple runaway juveniles,” said Cody Parton, assistant emergency management coordinator and assistant SAR coordinator for Haywood County Emergency Services.

Until September 2023, the SAR team had been under the auspices of the Haywood County Rescue Squad. But now they’re under Haywood County Emergency Services, which has proven a better fit organizationally.

“It made more sense because we’re a dotted line to the sheriff’s department, because they’re responsible for any kind of missing persons in the county,” Zimmerman said. “So we’re more like a specialty team extension of what they would do.”

They carry it with them 

Over the past five years, the tightknit SAR team has been busy, responding to anywhere between 21 and 31 incidents each year with annual averages for volunteer hours per incident fluctuating between 36 and 67 hours. Since 2019, SAR volunteers have spent more than 7,000 hours responding to calls for help. Currently, the SAR team has 41 members, plus a cadre of Carolina Mountain Club members who are specially trained  to help search.

out SAR waterfall

High-angle rescues involving ropes and steep drops are some of the most technically challenging to pull off. Haywood SAR photo

“One hope I had for the whole [premiere] event … is that people come away with a greater appreciation for the time and the effort, energy, dedication, the cost that goes into rescuing people, and that that is being done by volunteers who are taking their own time, equipping themselves,” said WNC Wilderness Safety Fund board member Kevin FitzGerald.  

The David Crockett rescue happened in January 2017, now seven years in the rearview. But those it touched were affected forever. East, an avid adventurer who has been outside in all types of weather, said she had “never been so cold in my life.” Zimmerman recalls how the thermometer read 6 degrees when he got back to his truck after the last night of searching. And Crockett is filled with gratitude for the life he gets to keep living after the SAR team saved it. East knows this, because since the rescue she and Crockett have forged a friendship. That’s a common outcome of these more intense rescues, she said, and it’s the personal connection that drives her to answer each subsequent call for help.

“What registered for me with the interviews we did in February [for the documentary] was the mindset that each and every team member has,” Wallis said in the podcast. “They literally carry their gear with them everywhere … They’re literally carrying gear with them, but they’re also figuratively carrying that mindset with them, wherever they go, knowing that at any point the call could come, and they drop what they’re doing, and they go and help.”

See the film

Watch the premiere of “Safe and Found,” a documentary featuring the Haywood County Search and Rescue Team, during an event that starts at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20, at the Haywood Community College auditorium in Clyde.

The film shows what it’s like to serve on this all-volunteer team in the most remote areas of Western North Carolina, shares how to stay safe while hiking and features accounts from people the team has rescued and from a daughter who lost her mother to a hiking accident. 

The doors will open at 2 p.m., giving attendees a chance to meet the film creators and collaborators and members of the SAR team. Merchandise from film partners Wim Schalken of Hiker Medals and Heidi Nisbett of Sketching Summits will be available for purchase. The film will start at 3 p.m., followed by a 4 p.m. Q&A with its creators, collaborators and members of the SAR team.

Free, but RSVPs are requested due to space constraints. Attendees are invited to support the SAR team through donations to the WNC Wilderness Safety Fund. Learn more or register at

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