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Reserve unit aids search for climbers

Search-and-rescue crew receives two calls in four days for help on Mount Rainier

Northwest Guardian

Published: 06:57PM June 5th, 2014
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Danielle Gregory/Northwest Guardian

A search and rescue crew member from Joint Base Lewis-McChord repells out of a CH-47D Chinook during rescue training May 21 on Mount Rainier.

Some years, the Reserve service members who rescue climbers from Mount Rainier don’t get a single call. Last week, they received two within four days — and this year’s climbing season is just beginning.

On Saturday morning, a military search crew with 1st Battalion (General Support), 214th Aviation Regiment, was called to help with a dire situation: Six climbers on Rainier hadn’t been heard from in several days. The unit responded, sending a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to search for the climbers.

A civilian contract chopper that accompanied the 1-214 Avn. team spotted gear on the mountain and received pings from emergency beacons buried in snow 3,300 feet below the climbers’ last known location.

Although there was no sign of the climbers themselves, the 1-214th crew continued to search the area, flying the climbers’ route looking for evidence of what happened to them, said Randy King, Park Superintendent for Mount Rainier.

At 2:30 p.m., military crews received notice they had reached their flight-hour limits, and the search had switched to recovery mode. The climbers were presumed to be dead in a fall or avalanche.

Although there was nothing crews could do for the climbers, park officials were grateful to the military for their hard work during the search effort.

“We really appreciate everything the military had done to help us in the park,” King said. “The Chinook crew played an important role during the search.”

Although the Reserve search-and-rescue unit’s second call of the season ended in disappointment, the first had a happy ending.

On May 28, a week after completing SAR training on Rainier, the park service alerted the 1-214 Avn. about a 27-year-old woman having convulsions at 12,500 feet up the mountain. With little more to go on, the rescue team, including a Madigan Army Medical Center doctor and hoist operators from 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, was rapidly on its way.

Within three hours, the team arrived, retrieved the patient, administered initial medical care and delivered her to Madigan. She was doing well, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard Bovey, a 1-214 Avn. rescue pilot said a day after the rescue.

The crew never established the cause of the climber’s seizures. Bovey said high altitude, intense exercise or a previous medical condition could cause the symptoms in Mount Rainier’s environment.

The incident required the Reserve unit to use all aspects of its recent training, from high-altitude flying, rappelling, hoisting with a litter and administering medical treatment at high-altitude.

“The training absolutely helped us,” Bovey said after the rescue.

The military crew isn’t called for every emergency situation on Mount Rainier; often park service personnel make less dramatic rescues on their own. For difficult situations in more more severe conditions, however, calling military SAR professionals is the best option, Bovey said.

“It really is a mutually beneficial, synergistic relationship between the National Park Service and the Army Reserve,” said Capt. Alan Moss, public affairs officer with the 11th Aviation Command, 1-214 Avn.’s higher headquarters. “Our pilots save lives and gain high-altitude training, which is beneficial for them in combat.”

With the climbing season underway, Moss said the unit’s early experiences have given the rescue team a valuable level of confidence.