Saturday, August 12, 2017

Rescue helicopters deployed differently at mountains in the Cascades

When a 22-year-old man slipped and tumbled 1,000 feet into the snow-covered Crater Lake caldera in mid-May, authorities sought the help of a helicopter.

Forty-five minutes after the request, a cable lowered a rescuer from the hovering chopper and the civilian airman secured the injured victim who was carried to safety.

Rocky Henderson, a 30-year veteran of Portland Mountain Rescue, couldn't help but notice the rapid response.

Only two weeks earlier, Henderson stayed with a fallen climber at Mount Hood, waiting for a helicopter to whisk the man to a hospital. Instead, climber John Thorton Jenkins died moments before he was raised by cable to the hovering helicopter five hours after he fell.

The two examples highlight the differences in helicopter rescues throughout the Northwest for hikers, boaters and climbers.

A lot depends on where they are, which government entity oversees search and rescue in that area and what resources are available at a given time.

The options at Mount Hood compared to Crater Lake National Park and Mount Rainier National Park, for example, are distinctly different even though all are on federal land.

Mount Hood is largely under the management of the U.S. Forest Service, which partners with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and Hood River County Sheriff's Office for search and rescue. In turn, those offices rely on the Oregon Office of Emergency Management to secure "air assets."

More times than not at Mount Hood and Cascades peaks in central Oregon, the asset is a helicopter – one equipped with a hoist and the capability of flying to at least 10,000 feet.

And almost always the helicopter dispatched to Mount Hood will be an Oregon Army National Guard helicopter. The Guard and the emergency office have a close working relationship, said Scott Lucas, the office's search and rescue coordinator.

On May 7 to rescue Jenkins, the helicopter mission unfolded smoothly, said the pilot, Maj. Nathan Edgecomb.

In a post-mission analysis, "We really couldn't find anything that didn't go as planned or as good as it could," Edgecomb said, noting that he and the co-pilot happened to be at Salem Municipal Airport when the aid call arrived, "which saved at least an hour."

On June 12, 2016, a helicopter from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island on Washington's Puget Sound was summoned to pluck two stranded climbers from a treacherous perch at 10,300 feet at Mount Hood. The uninjured climbers were then dropped off at the Timberline Lodge parking lot.

Advocates for possibly using a Naval Air Station Whidbey Island helicopter for future Mount Hood rescues have pointed to that mission as an example of optimal efficiency. But records show it took about 3 ½ hours for the helicopter to arrive at Mount Hood from the start of a chain-of-command approval process – a longer period of time than the National Guard response May 7.

Mount Rainier National Park and North Cascades National Park have a helicopter assigned to rescues there for 120 days during peak climbing season. The helicopter stays at Mount Rainier.

In addition, the parks can call on military helicopters year-round from Joint Base Lewis–McChord near Tacoma, said Glenn Kessler, Mount Rainer park aviation manager.

The park's helicopter has been stationed at Mount Rainier for five years, Kessler said. This is the third year North Cascades also has been served by the helicopter and talks are underway to include Olympic National Park.

Kessler knows Mount Hood's rescue needs well because he was the climbing ranger there from 1994 to 1999.

While a helicopter dedicated to Mount Hood rescues would improve response times, "you have to look at the funding and who will staff that helicopter," he said.

 The maintenance and operation of Mount Rainier's helicopter is about $900,000 a year, he said.

A helicopter isn't dedicated to Crater Lake National Park, where rangers work closely with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office on search and rescue.

But the Sheriff's Office has a rescue services contract with Brim Aviation of Ashland. That helicopter is dispatched only if the company has one available – which it did May 21 when the man tumbled into the caldera, said Sgt. Shawn Richards, the Sheriff's Office search and rescue coordinator.

It has been said Mount Hood, with an estimated 10,000 people a year trying to reach its summit, is the second most-climbed glaciated peak in the world, after Japan's Mount Fuji.

With that kind of reputation, and with a growing number of hikers and climbers on the mountain as well as in the Columbia River Gorge, it would behoove public safety officials to at least consider more options for air rescue, said Lee Davis, executive director of the Mazamas, the Portland climbing organization founded in 1894 on the summit of Mount Hood.

The state should have a rescue helicopter stationed at Portland International Airport, one that could assist not only at Mount Hood but elsewhere, he said.

"If we want to continue to promote responsible outdoor recreation for all Oregonians," Davis said, "we need to do something to address the increased number of incidents that will inevitably occur as recreation continues to grow."

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