Lost in the Wilderness
Volunteers rise to the occasion when needed most
Story by Cole Finchen
A man stumbles into a stranger’s tent at 3 a.m., asking for people to help him retrieve his missing daughter and her friend at the base of a cliff. He says he had buried them under rocks to protect them from the inclement weather. The men head out and find an irregular rock formation at the base of a cliff, and two girls safely buried underneath. This was Chuck Foster’s introduction to rescue, and led him to become a member of the Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council.
Mount Baker is a popular destination for Western students and Whatcom County residents, and a premier location for skiers and snowboarders. There are roughly 40 fatalities reported each year related to skiing and snowboarding in the United States, and two or three out of every 1,000 participants are injured.
Launched in 1955 after two accidents on Mount Shuksan, the BMRC has jurisdiction over all of Whatcom County, including hiking trails and other areas that may need search-and-rescue efforts. The program is funded through donations and United Way funding. BMRC member Chuck Foster joined the organization in 2007 upon moving to Bellingham, and has served as a board member, president and training coordinator.
“We’ve got members who have been rescued themselves,” Foster says. Foster is a retired architect, and spends his free time with the BMRC or enjoying the outdoors recreationally.
In order to become a member of the BMRC, one must submit a resume and be proficient in crevasse and glacier rescue. Calls to 911 for search-and-rescue are connected to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s office Search-and-Rescue coordinator, who contacts the appropriate search- and- rescue organization depending on the location and terrain. The frequency of calls forwarded to the BMRC varies; sometimes the organization goes months without a call, and sometimes they receive multiple calls in a single day.
“[We get called] 12 to 15 times a year,” Foster says. “The calls vary from someone being lost in the fog to twisted ankles or broken ankles, climbers falling into crevasse and unfortunately body recovery.”
Injuries most often occur when skiers and snowboarders take dangerous routes or go off the path completely.
“With some of those routes, if you fall, you’re unlikely to survive,” Foster says. “[But] it’s a feather in some of those skiers’ caps if you take those routes.”
The length of missions also varies quite a bit; they can be as short as an hour, but can also last up to four days. Volunteer Tob Degolier searched for three days when people without transceivers were buried by an avalanche.
On longer missions, rescue personnel will rotate to avoid fatigue and putting themselves in danger.
“It’s not our job to go out there and get ourselves killed,” says Degolier, who works as an electrician when not volunteering for the BMRC. “There’s always some risk, but we mitigate it as much as possible.”
Family members will often travel to the base of rescue operations, waiting for their loved one to return safely. When a rescue turns into a body recovery, volunteers go through the grieving process with the present family members. The physical act of recovering the body is also a harrowing experience in itself, Foster says.
“It’s a somber feeling when you have six or eight people carrying someone who died doing what we love to do, and you’re carrying them for hours and hours,” Foster says.
Although survival rates drop with every day that a person is missing, Foster has successfully rescued people who have been missing for four days. He and his teammates once found a man who was lost on a hiking trail after three full days of searching. After eliminating every other place he could be, the BMRC found the man, who had started on the wrong trail from the parking lot.
The council has also occasionally rescued pets, sometimes paired with a missing person and sometimes on their own. On one occasion, the council was called on to rescue eight huskies that had been separated from their owner.
The most frequent time of year for calls is late fall, because many people try to take advantage of the outdoors before winter sets in. Sunday nights are the most common time of day to be called, when family members are concerned that a loved one hasn’t come home.
Since becoming a member of the BMRC, Foster has taken tracking classes to help with rescue efforts. Tracking is a valuable tool because, as Foster says, there are many more clues than there are subjects.
Modern technology also helps with search-and-rescue missions, making them more successful and efficient. When a team of rescue workers returns from the field, their route is downloaded in order to prevent the next team from covering ground that has already been searched. Unfortunately, many people are too reliant on modern technology, and many people wouldn’t get lost at all if they simply brought a compass.
Members of the BMRC own their own equipment, and typically set up an operation base at the start of a trailhead when they are called out for a rescue. The BMRC itself owns a Ford Excursion that was donated and a rescue truck that they are currently looking to replace. They also have access to the SAR building that houses equipment for various search-and-rescue groups.
The BMRC occasionally works with the Navy and Homeland Security, both of which provide helicopters during especially dangerous rescues. Helicopters are only used when the threat of death or limb loss exists. When these rescues are successful, they can be especially rewarding.
“The most exciting rescue was probably one on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Foster says. It would turn out that the man they were searching for had broken his leg. “We had a spot beacon set off, so we went to find out what was going on. We could see the subject but couldn’t land there, so we landed a couple miles away, walked down to him, splinted him up, and they lowered a cable to lift him up and then lift us up. To be hoisted above the trees on a quarter-inch cable is pretty exciting.”
The BMRC often collaborates with Skagit County Search and Rescue, who deal with the south side of Mount Baker, for callouts and trainings.
To avoid needing assistance from the mountain-rescue team, Foster has simple advice for skiers and hikers.
“If you’re skiing, always go with a partner,” Foster says. “Always make sure someone knows your complete route. If you’re hiking alone, make sure everyone knows where you’re going, and don’t vary from the route if you’re alone,”
Unfortunately, one cannot always prepare for an avalanche or a botched landing. When accidents like these happen on Mount Baker, the BMRC is called upon to save lives.