Rick Lipke took a teenage passion for rock climbing and turned it into a Bellingham company called Conterra that’s known worldwide for its specialized rope-rescue devices and techniques, medical supplies and EMS gear used by fire departments, ski patrols, the military and law-enforcement agencies.
He’s literally written the book on modern technical rope rescue, and his “Technical Rescue Riggers Guide” is in its second printing. He’s contributed expertise to the National Park Service Technical Rescue Handbook, advised the FBI, and offered technical and practical advice and training – sometimes free or at a greatly reduced cost – to volunteer fire departments and rescue agencies from rural Whatcom County to the glaciers of Iceland.
Lipke’s patented Scarab device made it easier for rescuers to lower a victim on a stretcher; Conterra’s radio chest harnesses and EMS trauma holsters help emergency responders keep critical tools close at hand; and Conterra’s other products have applications across a wide range of rescue, fire/EMS, tactical and industrial operations. You’ll find Conterra gear in fire engines, ambulances, aboard medevac helicopters, in police command vehicles, on Humvees, on the ski slopes, at oil refineries, in steam tunnels and on remote mountaintops.
My thrust was really trauma in a severe environment, with limited equipment and long transport times. Rick Lipke, Conterra Inc.
“His stuff is everywhere,” said Bill Boyd, recently retired chief of Bellingham Fire Department. “I was in Hawaii on the beach with my wife and the lifeguard was driving around, there were Conterra kits in that.”
Boyd and Lipke were friends at Western Washington University in the 1980s. They love to describe how they perfected one of Lipke’s signature products, the Trauma Pro EMS/radio holster, while riding a chairlift at Mt. Baker Ski Area a decade later.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of admiration for him,” Boyd said.
Jim Peeples of Geneva, a retired Bellingham firefighter and former division chief of special rescue for South Whatcom Fire Authority, said Lipke was an early innovator for the fire-based EMS system, when programs like Whatcom County Medic One were still in their infancy in the early 1980s.
“Rick changed so much of the industry,” Peeples said. “Instead of us using stuff that was make-do, like those early first aid kits that were just fishing tackle boxes, he made things for a specific purpose. He was one of the biggest driving forces for that in the country. Rick started making people ask the question, ‘Why are we doing things this way?’ ”
Conterra Inc. was founded in an Idaho Street garage in 1990. Now, it occupies rented space in a nondescript light-industrial building on Kentucky Street in the Roosevelt area, and remains true to Lipke’s ethic of making high-quality products in the United States, with workers paid a living wage. His wife Wendy runs the business portion. Conterra has precision machines for cutting and stitching heavy fabric, and other machines that have been rigorously certified to make life-safety equipment. There’s even a photo studio, where Lipke can produce videos and make presentations to teach how Conterra equipment should be used.
Lipke eschews long-term financial loans, instead following the business philosophy of capitalization – re-investing his profits in the company.
“That kept us debt-free but growth was slow,” he said. “But it also kept us sustainable. It can be done. We don’t have giant yachts and Porsches, but we’ve been able to keep people employed. There’s a certain family feeling to (Conterra). We don’t have a lot of turnover. We’re comfortable here, it’s close to home.”
Rick changed so much of the industry. Instead of us using stuff that was make-do, like those early first aid kits that were just fishing tackle boxes, he made things for a specific purpose. Jim Peeples, retired chief of special operations for South Whatcom Fire Authority
Lipke sometimes even rides his bicycle to work, but more often he drives a 2004 quad cab Tacoma with personalized plates that say “PRUSIK,” a kind of mountaineering hitch.
His interest in mountaineering and emergency medicine dates to high school in Anacortes where he worked as a lifeguard and scaled rock faces across Skagit and Whatcom counties for fun. He became an EMT instructor, teaching continuing education courses to firefighters around the area. He has a BA in psychology from WWU, and has worked as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital. But it’s his love of the outdoors that’s driven his career focus.
“My thrust was really trauma in a severe environment, with limited equipment and long transport times,” he said.
Patented rescue device
Because Lipke wasn’t satisfied with equipment that he found in stores, he created much of his own climbing and outdoors gear. His friends saw his personalized equipment and asked him to make more. That’s when he began to look critically at the tools used by mountaineers, firefighters and rescue personnel.
“The recreational market was rapidly changing in the 1980s, with manufacturing moving into China,” Lipke said, but the products were cheaply made, and weren’t tailored for specific tasks. “I wanted to make sure that we continued to manufacture in the U.S. Things could be had cheaply (overseas), but at a huge cost. Because I like making things, it wasn’t of interest for me to farm out production.”
“The first thing I made was fanny packs for ski patrol. Rather quickly, I built things for (Bellingham Fire) and it grew from there,” he said.
That I think is Rick’s exceptional gift: How to distill and prioritize key medical information. Gwyn Howat, executive vice president of the Mt. Baker Ski Area
His friendship with Boyd – and his connections with the ski patrol and mountaineering organizations – gave Lipke insight into the needs for special rescue tools within the emergency services. For example, medical kits that fit an ambulance compartment don’t necessarily fit on a fire engine, and wilderness rescue personnel need a medical kit that they can wear like a backpack.
“It was a very nice feedback loop as to what worked and what was essential,” he said, chuckling about how he and Boyd hatched the idea for his popular EMS holster during a ski trip.
“We were just talking on the chairlift and I think we have sold 100,000 of them,” Lipke said.
Lipke’s big breakthrough was a 2007 patent for the Scarab, device that he invented for lowering heavy loads in a technical rope rescue situation. It streamlined and simplified the descent-control portion of rope rescue, replacing a heavy and complicated tool. The Scarab can be used used for rappelling and for lowering a litter with an injured person aboard. It’s made in Bellingham, from blocks of metal that are fabricated in an ISO 9000-certified machine shop, one of only a few in the U.S. that meet the tough international production safety standard.
“Before the Scarab, the only way to lower a heavy load was to use a brake bar rack,” Lipke said. “That’s a heavy piece of metal to carry.” Conterra makes the Scarab in both lightweight titanium (for mountain rescue) and stainless steel at the Bellingham shop.
“That was my most important patent. It’s a neat little device. It’s simple, intuitive. We proved you can make it simple and make it safe,” he said.
Many people actually owe their lives to people either trained by Lipke or who use equipment that he designed.
Consider Warren Levine of Bellingham, who in the predawn hours of Aug. 11, 2016, lost control of his Toyota Prius and careened over a 250-foot embankment on the Mount Baker Highway near milepost 51.5, where the road switchbacks at steep angles, 20 miles from the nearest fire station.
Levine found his cellphone in the wreckage and called for help. The volunteer firefighters from Whatcom County Fire District 19 in Glacier set up a simple rope system that Chief Ben Thompson had tested repeatedly with Lipke, using a capstan mounted on the engine to raise and lower a patient, and avoiding the need to summon a technical rope team – whose response could take hours in such a remote area.
Using Thompson’s and Lipke’s techniques, volunteer firefighters without advanced rope skills safely lowered themselves to the wreck, secured the car to a tree, and got Levine into a litter so he could be raised.
“(Lipke)’s had a long relationship with people on the mountain, teaching them to get people out of chair lifts,” Thompson said. “We had him come up and teach the volunteers some ‘over the fog line’ rescue.”
Thompson said his firefighters perform such steep-angle rescues a couple times a year.
Chief Jerry DeBruin of Whatcom County Fire District 14 said Lipke’s expertise has been an asset to the volunteer fire department serving the rural foothills areas of Kendall, Sumas and Welcome. Lipke taught techniques for swift-water river rescue, a situation that firefighters along the Nooksack River must face.
“His classes, his instruction over the the years, has been invaluable,” DeBruin said. “He has a ton of knowledge and he wants to get it out.”
Gwyn Howat, executive vice president of Mt. Baker Ski Area, said Lipke has provided technical and medical advice to ski area workers and its ski patrol for several years. She said Lipke still offers a offers a back-to-basics approach, despite the advances in gear, technique and treatment. Through Lipke, Howat earned her own outdoor emergency care certificate with the National Ski Patrol.
“That I think is Rick’s exceptional gift: How to distill and prioritize key medical information,” Howat said. “Rick has been hugely helpful and instrumental in high-angle rope-rescue training for our Ski Patrol. His skills have been utilized by our Pro Patrol for some search and rescue, but mostly cliff rescue. He was also a member of our ski patrol for many years and was an outstanding OEC trainer.
Change is constant
Conterra’s company logo is a ski patrol cross inside an EMS star, which honors his start in wilderness emergency medicine. It’s a made-up name and doesn’t stand for anything, he said.
“Conterra? Honestly, I just thought it sounded cool.” Later, he learned that it resembles the Latin phrase meaning “with dirt,” a connection he finds appropriate.
He’s amused when he sees his company’s products featured in the media. “It’s almost exclusively the chest harness,” he said. “We’ll see them on TV shows, movies, news reports.” Actor Danny McBride is outfitted with a Conterra radio chest harness in the 2008 Ben Stiller movie movie “Tropic Thunder.” Look closely at coverage of wildfires this summer: you’ll see firefighters wearing Conterra gear.
Lipke often devotes time to instruction, especially with volunteer organizations like Skagit Mount Rescue and volunteer fire departments across Whatcom County.
Lately, he’s been teaching firefighters, ski patrols and others how to use a device called a vacuum mattress, or full-body vacuum splint, that’s replacing rigid backboards to move patients with suspected spinal injury more safely. Conterra makes two kinds – one for fire/EMS, and a lightweight version for rescue. An injured person is wrapped in the mattress – a vinyl or nylon-coated blanket stuffed with plastic beads like a bean-bag chair – and air is sucked out so the device becomes rigid and molds to the patient. Airlift Northwest recently outfitted its helicopter ambulances with the lightweight version, he said.
“The changes in emergency medicine that I’ve witnessed, it’s been so interesting,” he said.
The Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority and has taken rope-rescue and EMS classes that Lipke has taught.