Volunteering for a rescue

Network of locals offer quick help when hikers need it most

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

When hikers get lost in the woods or stuck on a mountain near Juneau, phones ring and beepers beep, alerting volunteers all over town.

The rescuers get out of bed in the middle of the night. They walk out of work or leave their dinners half-eaten, knowing it could be days before they return. And they do it all for free.

"Everybody that goes out on search and rescue in Alaska, they're going out on their own time and their own risk," said Bruce Bowler, head of Southeast Alaska Dogs for Organized Ground Search (SEAdogs).

Five volunteer groups and three government agencies work together to find and rescue people lost around Juneau, but almost all the people actually doing the ground searching are trained volunteers.

"It would be very difficult to start up an agency to do the sort of things these people do," said Steve Lewis, director of Juneau Mountain Rescue.

It would also be very expensive.

The Civil Air Patrol bills the state $86.20 an hour for the direct operating cost of the Beaver they fly to carry searchers into the field and search from the air. That's significantly cheaper than the Coast Guard Blackhawk, which costs $8,000 an hour, or the National Guard helicopter at $3,000 to $4,000 an hour.

Even commercial helicopters, which the troopers usually hire when a helicopter is needed because they are cheaper, cost more. The troopers spent $6,000 for commercial flight time during a two-day search for Joshua Shrader, a hiker who got lost in the Mount Roberts area in July.

In the last fiscal year the troopers spent $280,000 on 246 search and rescues in the state, said Lt. Chuck Lamica, statewide search and rescue coordinator for the troopers.

"If I ever get lost, I hope the Juneau teams are on my search," he said.

On the ground, Juneau Mountain Rescue and SEAdogs work closely to find missing people. Since Juneau Mountain Rescue formed in 1982, the team has been called out up to 16 times a year, said Lewis, who wrote "The Practical Mountain Rescue Handbook."

Once the search is over and the rescue begins, the all-volunteer Rope Rescue Team is often called in to help retrieve people from steep and technical terrain.

"We rely on volunteers heavily," said Kim Mahar, co-manager of the Rope Rescue Team. "The use of the volunteers is critical to rescues because they know the area and what equipment is needed to keep them out of harm's way."

Tom Pauser was one of the volunteers called out on May 5 after a hiker fell down Mt. Roberts and got stuck on a small ledge. Lewis' call came just after Pauser, a Coast Guard Petty Officer, got home.

"He said something was going on on the tram, and asked if I could be there," said Pauser. "I said yes and grabbed my gear."

Pauser, a trained mountain climber, coordinated a ground search and started up the steep mountain at 6:45 p.m. The search party found 40-year-old Dave Nelson lying on a small ledge of roots.

"He was conscious, but in a lot of pain," said Pauser. "He fell so hard that it ripped some of his clothes off."

The rescue team put Nelson in a litter and carried him down the mountain to a waiting ambulance.

"It's an adrenaline rush to rescue someone," said Pauser, who joined Juneau Mountain Rescue in September of 2000 because it encompassed his interest in rock climbing, mountaineering and Juneau.

The search and rescue teams are always looking for qualified volunteers, but they won't take everybody.

 

"I get lots of requests, 'Oh, I'd like to join Juneau Mountain Rescue. Can I give you my phone number?'" Lewis said. He tells them no. Instead, apply through the Web site, juneaumountainrescue.org. Then attend a training session or two, to see if you pass muster.

"They don't have to be expert climbers, but we do expect them to come to the team with pretty good outdoor experience," Lewis said. "The number one attribute that we're looking for is superior common sense in the outdoors."

Team members also supply their own gear.

"We have a pretty small budget," Lewis said. "All we need is some rope and some hardware and everything else is really supplied by the team members, all the $400 Gore-tex jackets and pants that get ripped up."

The rescue team members train frequently. SEAdogs handlers work with their dogs every week, practicing search scenarios in areas where people often get lost. They start when they're just puppies, playing more and more elaborate hide-and-seek games.

Detlef Buettner started working with his black lab Mykiss three years ago.

"For me it's mostly having fun with Mykiss," said Buettner, who is almost ready to take the certification test and join the SEAdogs team. "It's a great thing to do and it's great when Mykiss finds something."

When he heard the command "You want to go to work?" at a practice in July, Mykiss bounded through the swampy brush near Goat Hill, his ears and tail bouncing. He wove back and forth, covering miles with his nose while Buettner sauntered an easier path behind him. Buettner watched Mykiss' energy level, waiting for the dog to come back and bark, the signal he's found someone.

The dogs are able to follow their noses to find people, even underwater. Recently they've been used to find bodies of drowning victims in Juneau and Yakutat.

But when the terrain is particularly icy or steep, the dogs won't go. Then it's up to Juneau Mountain Rescue. They were the ones who hiked into the foggy night on Herbert Glacier to find the survivors of a helicopter crash in September 1999. The searchers were about to give up the search for the night when they heard a response to their yells. About 80 percent of the people the mountain rescue team finds alive are in response to a voice search, Lewis said.

The rescuers practice technical mountaineering skills so they can cross whatever crevasses and cliffs get in their way. Sunday the mountain rescue team strung a 720-foot Tyrolean traverse across the Perseverance Glory Hole. The rope bridge used a mile of rope and line-throwing guns that shot projectiles 1,000 feet per second.

"We train like we rescue," Lewis said. "We move fast and it hurts sometimes."

However, training doesn't eliminate all of the dangers involved with conducting rescues.

"Technical rescues are very hard. On paper they look simple, but when you're out on the slope it's totally different," said Lewis. "It's usually dark, there are not a lot of platforms to work off of, and when you have a 250-pound man you're trying to get into a litter it's not easy."

Then, after staying up all night to rescue someone, the volunteers change clothes and go to work. Some are doctors, nurses or EMTs. One of the men searching for Joshua Shrader was a commercial fisherman who gave up a several days at sea to look for Shrader, Bowler said. Several volunteers are state workers, because the state allows them to go on rescues without using vacation time.

"We like our jobs, but it's nice to get out there and do something where you feel like you're making a significant difference," Lewis said. "For instance, this last search the parents flew in from Soldonta and they were sitting there in the waiting room and it feels sort of like a death watch."

To be able to bring Joshua Shrader back to his parents safely was satisfying.

"Our whole focus, our function, is to find people alive and bring them back alive," Bowler said.

 

But they don't always. If the ending isn't happy, the searchers often deal with emotional fallout. Lewis remembers times the mountain rescuers spent several days in a row removing bodies from airplanes.

"If the helicopter goes down and people died and the bodies are all scrambled up ... that's when they get nightmares," said Judy Bowler, who manages debriefing of the rescue volunteers to help prevent Critical Incident Stress.

The volunteers sometimes have difficulty sleeping or focusing after recovering bodies. They may feel nauseous or have appetite changes.

"I get that feeling like you're kind of angry, but you don't really have anything you're angry about," Lewis said. "That kind of flushed feeling."

In the debriefing, the rescuers gather in a supportive and confidential setting to talk about the incident and how they can take care of themselves. They're advised to take time for themselves, work off the adrenaline of the incident through exercise and find people to talk to about it, over and over.

"When you don't find them and they die, it's a lot of responsibility," Lewis said. "You're not just going out there and tramping through the woods. Everything we do is pretty serious stuff."

Christopher Grisafe contributed to this story. Kristan Hutchison can be reached at khutchison@juneauempire.com.



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