Sunday, March 4, 2018

Whatcom County, Washington: Lost or injured in the wilderness? Here’s who’s coming to save you

If you’re lost or injured in a remote area of Whatcom County, how long it takes for help to arrive – and who comes to your rescue – depends on the weather, where you are, and how badly you’re hurt.

With the region’s varied landscape, stretching from the shores of Bellingham Bay to the glacier-cloaked slopes of Mount Baker, search-and-rescue teams need a variety of skills to help people in distress. It can take several hours or more to assemble the personnel and equipment required to find and rescue people in trouble, said Whatcom County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Huso.

“There are times when we’re not able to get there for days,” Huso said, cautioning wilderness sports enthusiasts to “be prepared, and be prepared to wait.”

Huso said that means keeping abreast of current weather conditions, carrying a cellphone or avalanche beacon, extra clothing, the so-called “10 essentials” and adequate food and water.

Always travel with a partner, he said, and let someone know your plans.

Often, an overdue person such as a hiker, climber or snow-shoer, is reported at nightfall – which means search teams might not be able to start before daybreak.

Wilderness can be deadly

In the past year in Whatcom County, three snowboarders have vanished on snowy mountain slopes and are presumed dead; inner-tubers have struggled in the raging Nooksack River; and mountain climbers have fallen into glacial crevasses – including one who suffered a fatal injury. Kayakers got into trouble on Lake Whatcom and Bellingham Bay; motorists have driven off cliffs; hikers have fallen into canyons or gone missing on trails; and planes have crashed in the Chuckanut Mountains and in Bellingham Bay.

Most recently, a sales representative for the outdoor retailer Patagonia – an experienced backcountry skier who admits he should’ve known better than to head off alone – was missing for nearly a day before he stumbled onto a mountain rescue party.

“You name it, we do it,” Huso said.

“Hopefully this is it” for the season, he added. “Usually we don’t have a year quite like that, especially near the ski area.”

Huso and two SAR deputies under his command coordinate response to backcountry searches and other emergencies that require special rescue skills.

They reach out to a variety of local volunteers and local, state and federal agencies for help, including those with technical rope skills, special communications equipment, search dogs, horseback teams, four-wheel-drive trucks and ATVs, snowmobiles, boats and aircraft.

“Overall, we have about seven groups with over 200 volunteers,” Huso said.

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