Juneau's mountain rescue team is nationally certified

Accreditation means group recognized as one of the nation's elite rescue teams

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

Juneau Mountain Rescue team members do things that many only dream of - in nightmares.

Hanging onto slippery rocks about 200 feet up Nugget Falls to rescue a stranded climber a few years ago continues to be "spooky to think about," said Steve Lewis, founding member and director of the team.

Last weekend's adventure at the Eaglecrest Ski Area wasn't a real life-and-death emergency. The man who was supposed to have a broken back was in good health.

But for an audience of evaluators, the team did what it needed to do to become recognized as one of the elite mountain rescue teams in the country.

"I think the community is fortunate they've got an accomplished active mountain rescue team here," said Rocky Henderson, a member of Portland Mountain Rescue in Oregon since 1986 and a past president of the international Mountain Rescue Association.

Henderson said he was part of the group that gave passing scores to Juneau Mountain Rescue on two of the three challenges last year.

He said the team earned a spot as one of 56 fully accredited teams in the United States and Canada by handling a more difficult high-angle snow and avalanche challenge last weekend than they dealt with before.

Officially the honor will come with a vote at the Mountain Rescue Association's meeting in June in Anchorage. But Henderson said that is just a formality.

Lewis said it is an honor to earn a spot in the bigger fold of elite mountain rescue teams.

Bruce Bowler of SEADOGS - Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search - said his group frequently works with Juneau Mountain Rescue. He considers the accreditation "a recognition of the job they've been doing."

He said there was a time when the community would wait to see if lost people would find their way down from trails before mobilizing searches. But the more aggressive, dedicated and professional search-and-rescue teams operating today are saving lives.

Lewis' team, Bowler said, puts the "rescue" into the search-and-rescue business.

Team members often put their own lives at risk, he added, recalling the night at Nugget Falls.

The good thing about that night is that everybody survived, Lewis said. But as he was climbing up the rock face just to the right of the falls, the young man who was stuck "looked at me and said, 'Catch me.' I think I cussed at him."

Founded in 1982, the group has 20 volunteer members.

"The coolest thing is the whole team concept," Lewis said. "This is normally a big-city thing because of the amount of resources it takes."

Jim Calvin, who has been a team member for three years, said he appreciates the support that comes from the community, especially since members pay for their own equipment.

He said people bring different skills to the group, but they share a love for the outdoors. Team members also are good at what they do. He said he is proud to be in a group that met the rigorous standards of the Mountain Rescue Association.

"We've been training very hard for a year-and-a-half, hanging from ropes in crevasses and off of steep slopes. You never know when the pager is going to go off," he said.

Bowler recalled a day in September 1999 when three helicopters crashed on Herbert Glacier.

"I asked these guys to hike into dangerous conditions," he explained. Within an hour, they were ready at the airport to be dropped off on the Juneau Icefield with everything they needed to find and bring out six tourists from California.

Lewis said it was about 6:30 p.m. when the team was dropped in 1,200 feet below the 8-square-mile plateau they needed to search. He said members of the group occasionally called out "hello" in the darkness, until they heard a faint woman's voice calling back at about 11:15 p.m.

"We put up tents and sleeping bags," he said.

A helicopter picked up the tourists, and the rescue team hiked out.

"We were prepared to stay out four or five days," he said.

Henderson said Juneau Mountain Rescue last year passed tests in high-angle rock and ice work and wilderness search-and-rescue operations. Last weekend it passed its high-angle snow and avalanche tests.

The scenario involved a man who was supposed to have a broken back and needed to be lifted over a peak and down to a helicopter on the other side.

"I couldn't believe the wringer they put us through," Lewis said. "I was surprised how much pressure there was."

He said being evaluated is different from business as usual. While the more experienced team members are always helping train the newer members in the field, the evaluators were looking to see how well the experienced members of the team performed.

Henderson said he was impressed with Juneau's "high-energy committed team of mountain rescuers."

Lewis said there are calls in which there is no chance of finding people alive, but mountain rescuers get a great adrenaline rush from the call for help.

"It's pretty cool to go out and save someone's life," he said. "After you get done and they give you their hugs, tears come to your eyes and you hug each other."

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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