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When the mountain wins: Service members train for Mount Rainier rescues

Northwest Guardian

Published: 12:01PM May 29th, 2014

Thousands of climbers attempt to conquer Mount Rainier each year, but sometimes the mountain conquers them instead. Some years, fewer than half of those who start the climb make it to the 14,411-foot volcano’s summit.

“Mountaineering is so inherently dangerous,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard Bovey, an Army Reserve Chinook pilot, who has been rescuing people from Mount Rainier for 10 years. “Fortunately, most make smart climbing decisions and decide to turn around if they need to; they realize ‘this just isn’t my year.’”

But when someone doesn’t turn around in time and things go awry, Bovey and about 25 others on his all-volunteer team, with 1st Battalion, 214th General Support Aviation Regiment, are on standby to rescue them in even the roughest conditions.

The team’s CH-47D Chinooks have special capabilities that let them fly into clouds and weather conditions impossible for most commercial helicopters.

Bovey’s team stays busy each summer. Washington has the most mountaineering deaths of any state in the U.S.

He keeps a count of the rescue missions he’s flown — 15 so far. Wherever he is, Bovey is ready to drop everything and respond.

Not every rescue requires the team of Reserve Soldiers, but when the National Park Service’s Climbing Rangers can’t make a rescue on their own, they call the military for help.

“The National Park Service looks at us like a tool in their toolbox,” Bovey said.

To ramp up for the summer mountaineering rush and the increase in rescue calls that come with it, the search-and-rescue teams complete annual refresher training and qualification for high-mountain search-and-rescue training and austere-wilderness medical training on Mount Rainier.

The 1-214 GSAB, the National Park Service, Madigan Army Medical Center, the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron and Air Force Pararescue Jumpers, with the 304th Rescue Squadron, all joined in this year’s training May 19 to 22.

On the third day of the exercise, a team of medical personnel and pararescue jumpers rapelled from a Chinook and anchored themselves to the mountainside to conduct hoist operations.

They forced themselves to ignore the breathtaking view from above the clouds as they treated a dummy simulating an injured hiker, hoisting the patient in a litter onto the Chinook for transport to Madigan.

“They did really well,” Bovey said to his fellow pilot as they watched the team work from their cockpit.

During real rescues, Bovey’s team is lucky to get high-altitude medical personnel on board. Busy Madigan surgeons are often unavailable on short notice.

The rescue team’s priority without a doctor on board is to get the injured person off the mountain and to the hospital as quickly as possible. But if the emergency demands medical attention, all aircrew are combat lifesaver trained. This summer, however, medical personnel will be on call with the aircrew and the 22nd STS, who perform the hoist operations during a rescue.

The aircrew picked up park service rangers May 22 and took them on a “tour” of Rainier’s slopes to get firsthand impressions of conditions on the mountain.

Together they pointed out hikers, who looked like tiny dots to the naked eye, and determined this year’s most popular routes. They also made sure to look for dangerous conditions, like crevasses and avalanche-prone areas — information they can relay to climbers.

Bovey’s team hasn’t received a call this year, but his experience has taught him the number is purely random. Some years he waits all summer and gets no calls; others, he gets eight or nine. Once, he said, he even got two calls in the same day.

Although they are not paid to be on standby, and the Reserve’s service is at no cost to the Park Service or to climbers, he said his team’s role on Mount Rainier pays huge dividends when they’re deployed, particularly to the foothills of the Himalayas in Afghanistan.

“It’s a dangerous environment that’s hard to duplicate.” Bovey said. “Nothing is as valuable as real-world training, and to allow someone to go home when they otherwise wouldn’t have, is very rewarding.”