Mount Rainier rescuers practice for the inevitable
Helicopter rescue crews performed drills at Mount Rainier on Wednesday to keep their skills sharp for the summer season, when mountain rescues are common.
Seattle Times staff reporter
MOUNT RAINIER —
Instead of polishing off a cold beer on the Fourth of July holiday, Richard Bovey waits by his cellphone. The same goes for Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Surely, his phone will ring. As a pilot in the Army Reserves at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Bovey keeps flight gear in the trunk of his car in case he needs to respond to rescue calls for injured hikers on Mount Rainier.
Bovey has completed 15 rescues in the past 10 years. Holidays — especially in the summer months, he says — are usually rife with distress calls.
To prepare for the inevitable call to action, Bovey hosts rescue training at an 8,500-foot landing on the active volcano for a combined two weeks every year. With clear skies, the time was right for a refresher course Wednesday.
Blame poor weather conditions, unpreparedness or ill fate for Washington’s unfortunate claim as the state with the most mountaineering fatalities, surpassing Colorado, Alaska and California. While 12,000 of Mount Rainier’s visitors each year attempt to summit its 14,411-foot peak, fewer than two-thirds successfully reach the top.
“It’s an unforgiving environment,” Bovey said. “It doesn’t tolerate lack of preparedness very well.”
Whatever the reason for a call, Bovey and about six other volunteer crew members — including rescue climbers from the National Park Service — load up a CH-47D Chinook helicopter to rescue hikers from avalanches, crevasses and steep slopes. So far, no calls have been made this year.
Bovey battles drafts that not only circumvent the active volcano counterclockwise, but also blow wind chills through the aircraft’s open back. Steep slopes pose landing difficulties for the 17-ton helicopter. As for the hikers, hypothermia, altitude sickness and a spectrum of injuries resulting from falls or slips can prove fatal.
Rescues are at no cost to those being saved. And as a volunteer, Bovey isn’t paid to be on call. A phone call to the Army Reserves, in fact, is a last resort for officials at Mount Rainier, who try to use commercial vendors for rescues first. Bovey estimated that operating a Chinook for an hour costs $9,000.
But sufficient preparedness goes a long way for Bovey and his crew. From the cockpit of another helicopter, Bovey watched Wednesday as four men descended from a second helicopter on a 60-foot cable. A test dummy simulating a hiker was lowered on a stretcher, tended to medically and hoisted back up within an hour.
Brian Hart, a Seattle firefighter flying the other helicopter, had his crew rehearse descending and anchoring into the mountain. Hart said he was pleased with the seamless drills.
On a real mission, rescues usually take about two hours, and those saved often wind up at Madigan Army Medical Center for additional medical attention.
While a rescue mission can be chaotic, Bovey said some hikers send thank-you letters to the crew.
“It’s a strong sense of accomplishment for us and our crew members,” Bovey said.
Colleen Wright: 206-464-2240 or firstname.lastname@example.org.