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Tales Of A Wilderness Rescuer

After you've spent a cold, drizzly, miserable night searching for a lost or injured hiker, sometimes a few simple words of thanks make it all worthwhile.

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6:15 p.m. The phone rings.

“John, it’s for you. Craig McCurdy,” says my wife as I’m spooning ice cream onto my daughter’s dessert plate. For the sake of my two-year-old, I swear under my breath. Craig calling can mean only one thing: Someone’s lost or hurt out in the Northwest wilderness, and I have to help get him out.

7:30 p.m. Four of the Crag Rats, the local climbing club that handles rescues in these parts, assemble at the Eagle Creek trailhead in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. It’s mid-January and well past sunset. None of us is thrilled at having been torn from hearth and home to stand around in a cold crushing rain. Then we get the bad news: Two Rats who headed up ahead of us report that the victims aren’t where they said they’d be when they called for help at 5:30, and the sheriff can’t get through to their cellphone. What should have been a quick in-and-out to lead stranded hikers around a dangerous landslide is threatening to become a lengthy search before we can even get to the rescue. We check headlamps, stash extra batteries, then stride into the inky night.

Hard rain splatters off our helmets, and headlight beams stab the foggy darkness. Below us the swollen waters of Eagle Creek roar as the trail angles upward onto a narrow ledge. By day, this trail ranks among the most spectacular in Oregon, in large part for the way it ferrets secret passageways over, under, and right through the middle of 100-foot-tall moss-draped basalt walls. Tonight the cliffs above us resemble overflowing sinks dripping fiercely onto the trail.

8:30 p.m. The cable that’s used as a handline by cautious hikers disappears into the slide, a pile of rubble as steep as the vertical cliff itself. I probe the debris with my headlamp’s beam, wondering if I could scramble across with a roped belay. Not on my life. Below us, the cliff drops far enough that my light doesn’t reach the ground; above us it overhangs so steeply that the dripping rainwater completely clears the ledge-bound trail. And for 50 feet the ledge itself has utterly vanished under the slide.

We huddle under the overhang to discuss options.

“Maybe they turned around and hiked back out the same way they came in?”

“Maybe there’s another slide farther up the trail?”

“Maybe they’re on a different trail and just think they’re on Eagle Creek?”

Eventually we endorse the second-slide theory. In any case, we’ll have to cross this slide to assess the situation. Through the splashing I hear mutterings from our group. Where the hell are the victims? Why can’t this ever be simple?

Figures on the costs of search-and-rescue (SAR) operations have been flying thick and fast of late: $3.4 million spent by the National Park Service in 1997, $380 million by the Coast Guard. A total of more than $383 million a year spent by the federal government to rescue boaters, bikers, hikers, climbers — in short, outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. But when it comes to federal spending, finding big numbers is hardly a challenge. The tough part is figuring out what’s behind such figures.

The world of search and rescue boils down to a single concept with unending ramifications: responsibility. The responsibility of an outdoor enthusiast not to impose on others. The responsibility of the outdoor community to take care of its own. And the responsibility of society to care for its citizens.

According to Rick Wilcox, founder and head of New Hampshire’s Mountain Rescue Service for 24 years, “the actual cost to the taxpayer for a rescue is practically zero.” In New Hampshire, says Wilcox, volunteers are supplemented by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and USDA Forest Service employees and National Guard members who consider rescues just another part of the job. Of course, those salaries are paid by taxpayers, so there is always an accounting if only you look deeply enough. This was made clear to me by Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler (in most states, the county sheriff is in charge of SAR missions), who said our all-volunteer one-night excursion up Eagle Creek cost taxpayers $2,000 once sheriff department overtime, vehicle mileage, insurance, and other behind-the-scenes costs were factored in. This, despite the fact that the searchers donated not only their time, but their personal vehicles, radios, and all other equipment.

Still, most volunteers would rather not dwell on finances. “Rescues are my civic contribution,” are Craig McCurdy’s words. To SAR members, the most difficult issue is educating outdoorspeople so that a rescue is unnecessary in the first place. Or, as Drew Davis of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board puts it, there is a need for “preparedness” on the part of those who enter the wilderness.

The good news is that backpackers are generally ahead of the game when it comes to staying out of harm’s way. By definition, a backpacker is equipped mentally and gear-wise to spend nights outdoors under adverse conditions, and so a day-late backpacker is less likely to trigger a rescue than a dayhiker who doesn’t show up for dinner. Which is why some of us become frustrated by rescue statistics that inevitably lump all “hikers” into the same footloose crowd. Errant dayhikers so outnumber backpackers that the latter don’t even merit their own statistical column.

Still, stories of frivolous cell phone “Help!” calls and wasted searches abound, and the culprits certainly aren’t always dayhikers. The last time I was on the Eagle-Benson Trail in the Columbia Gorge, a backpacker with an injured knee was waiting for a rescue halfway up a long, steep trail, or so his partner told us in the parking lot. We hiked 10 miles and climbed 4,000 feet before daylight vanished. Then we raced 7 more miles in the dark, only to find that the so-called victim had walked out on his own. Good thing, too, because if we’d met him face to face after all that chasing, he might have suffered a broken leg after all.

According to Wilcox, the annual number of “real” rescues, at least in his crowded corner of the country, has remained steady, but there’s been a surge of “nuisance rescues” in locales plagued by cell phone towers, like the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In many cases, dayhiking families push too hard, get tired, then call for a rescue, which is usually denied.

Last January, the New Hampshire media and legislature were in a tizzy over a misplaced backpacker who had insisted by cell phone that he needed rescuing. After an extensive effort on foot, searchers finally found and retrieved him by helicopter. As it turned out, the victim was merely upset by a fall, wasn’t seriously injured, and certainly could have made it out on his own. New Hampshire now has a rarely enforced law against such nuisance rescues, and my home state of Oregon recently passed one that authorizes SAR organizations to charge negligent parties for their services if they see fit. Across the country, the option to bill is becoming increasingly available, though most rescuers agree with the Mountain Rescue Association’s Charley Shimanski: “We prefer to cover people, idiots or not, rather than risk a delay in truly serious cases.”

As various Crag Rats have stated, we’re “taking care of our own” out there, and that includes anyone who cares about the outdoors. In short, we don’t want family members to delay a search because they’re worried about a hefty bill or fine. If someone’s in a dangerous situation, we want to reach them as quickly as possible.

2:30 a.m. Seven soaking hours after launching this SAR, we’ve all but given up on the “rescue” part of it. We scoured the trail, twice crossing the harrowing landslide debris, and the victims are nowhere to be found. We can almost feel the warmth of the truck’s heater as we straggle toward the parking lot.

The radio squawks. It’s the sheriff: “They called again. They’ve bushwhacked 400 feet above the trail where they can get better cell phone reception.”

We stare in disbelief at one another. Two of the Rats are too beat to continue; we’ll call them by radio if we need more help. Four of us head back up the trail. By now, we’re numb to the waterfalls, including the one that douses us like a fire hose each time we plunge through it. Twenty minutes later I’m slamming my ice axe back into a log that’s wedged in a narrow rock chimney, kicking more rocks into the void below as I climb up and over-again. My buddy lights a flare rocket and our victims call the sheriff to report they see it shooting above the trees. They tell him they’ve been afraid to scramble down in the dark, not knowing where the cliffs are, and they ask that we come quickly.

As we scramble uphill toward our quarry, we notice two faint lights moving toward us in the forest above. We wait, trying to swallow the anger. Someone mumbles that the pair could have saved us a dozen miles of cold, soaking midnight hiking if they’d simply stayed on the trail. Slowly the lights approach until I can make out faces. Tired faces. Cold. Grateful. The weary eyes of two men, one big, one thin, look our way. The big one speaks in what sounds like a southern accent: “Boy are we glad to see you.” My anger is nearly wiped away by those simple words of thankfulness.

4:30 a.m. I pull back the sheets. Adele rolls over. “How did it go, sweetie?” At least I think I hear those words, or maybe I’m already asleep.

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