Climbing to new heights

Juneau Mountain Rescue completes second-ever accreditation this weekend

Posted: Sunday, April 05, 2009

This story has been corrected.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

During its second-ever accreditation since its inception in 1982, Juneau Mountain Rescue underwent a strenuous recertification assessment Friday night and all day Saturday at three different locations in town - and they passed.

As part of the Mountain Rescue Association's national accreditation process, which is required every five years, approximately 23 local volunteers were on call for three rescue scenarios held at Eaglecrest Ski Area, Mendenhall Glacier and Basin Road downtown.

Tim Cochrane, representing Vail Mountain Rescue Group, praised Juneau's group for its accreditation objectives, saying it is the highest level of accreditation that mountain rescuers can receive anywhere in North America.

"And it's done by an all-volunteer group of men and women," he said. "That's just incredible. I don't think you could actually pay people to do what we ask these volunteers do and yet they do it at such a high level."

As a senior evaluator for the Mountain Rescue Association, Cochrane has seen Juneau's rescue group grow over the last decade from being "strong individuals" to a "team of professionals."

"What's neat to see is how they've evolved," he said. "They've really raised their level of teamwork, their skill levels, their ability to really respond to any kind of backcountry mountain-type of emergency."

JMR Executive Director Steve Lewis agreed, saying the Juneau team has "deepened" in his 27 years with the group.

"There's more leadership now," he said. "There's a higher level of skill always, because the standards are constantly going up."

Hopefully, this weekend's three-part assessment testified to these high standards. Two representatives from Vail Mountain Rescue Group in Colorado; three from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group in Anchorage; and two from Sitka Mountain Rescue tested local rescuers in high-angle technical rescue, high-angle snow or avalanche response and wilderness search.

According to Lewis, the evaluation always ends with a pass or fail, and the tests can be fairly taxing.

"These things are pretty tough," he said. "I mean, they don't necessarily give you a thumbs up just because you're there. It's got to be either you hold the standard or you don't."

Steve Handy, a team leader and board member who has been with JMR for almost 10 years, also described the training as quite intensive.

In describing JMR's first accreditation in 2003, Handy said one of the three tests concocted by MRA evaluators was a high-angle technical rescue involving a "pick-off," when an injured victim must be rescued from a cliff.

"We have to either raise or lower the victim," Handy said of such situations. "Usually we'll drop down on to the victim, assess them, package them and get them out as safely and quickly as possible."

The last of the three scenarios this weekend was similar, intended to test the team's high-angle technical rescue. The exercise involved two individuals, one climbing and one belaying, on a rock wall near Nugget Falls at the Mendenhall Glacier. The person on belay fell and was "knocked unconscious" at around 9 a.m. Saturday.

The first two tests took place Friday night. A mock call came in at about 4:30 p.m. for an avalanche rescue at Eaglecrest Ski Area, where three victims, one deceased and two injured, needed rescuing.

The second call was within an hour after the first test was completed, said JMR Administrative Director Doug Wessen. A person was reported missing on Basin Road at about 8:45 p.m. Friday.

Dan Hourihan, lead evaluator with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, officially said the group passed.

"They worked extremely hard," Hourihan said of JMR. "They had tremendous teamwork and worked together fantastically. All the evaluators enjoyed it very much. Like any team, they have very strong points and areas they need to work on."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or

Correction: Reference to the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group was removed, as the two representatives from Colorado were both from the Vail Mountain Rescue Group.

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