If you’re lost or injured in a remote area of Whatcom County, how long it takes for help to arrive – and who comes to your rescue – depends on the weather, where you are, and how badly you’re hurt.
With the region’s varied landscape, stretching from the shores of Bellingham Bay to the glacier-cloaked slopes of Mount Baker, search-and-rescue teams need a variety of skills to help people in distress. It can take several hours or more to assemble the personnel and equipment required to find and rescue people in trouble, said Whatcom County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Huso.
“There are times when we’re not able to get there for days,” Huso said, cautioning wilderness sports enthusiasts to “be prepared, and be prepared to wait.”
Huso said that means keeping abreast of current weather conditions, carrying a cellphone or avalanche beacon, extra clothing, the so-called “10 essentials” and adequate food and water.
Always travel with a partner, he said, and let someone know your plans.
Often, an overdue person such as a hiker, climber or snow-shoer, is reported at nightfall – which means search teams might not be able to start before daybreak.
Wilderness can be deadly
In the past year in Whatcom County, three snowboarders have vanished on snowy mountain slopes and are presumed dead; inner-tubers have struggled in the raging Nooksack River; and mountain climbers have fallen into glacial crevasses – including one who suffered a fatal injury. Kayakers got into trouble on Lake Whatcom and Bellingham Bay; motorists have driven off cliffs; hikers have fallen into canyons or gone missing on trails; and planes have crashed in the Chuckanut Mountains and in Bellingham Bay.
Most recently, a sales representative for the outdoor retailer Patagonia – an experienced backcountry skier who admits he should’ve known better than to head off alone – was missing for nearly a day before he stumbled onto a mountain rescue party.
“You name it, we do it,” Huso said.
“Hopefully this is it” for the season, he added. “Usually we don’t have a year quite like that, especially near the ski area.”
Huso and two SAR deputies under his command coordinate response to backcountry searches and other emergencies that require special rescue skills.
They reach out to a variety of local volunteers and local, state and federal agencies for help, including those with technical rope skills, special communications equipment, search dogs, horseback teams, four-wheel-drive trucks and ATVs, snowmobiles, boats and aircraft.
“Overall, we have about seven groups with over 200 volunteers,” Huso said.
Sheriff’s SAR Deputy Mark Jilk said despite a few recent high-profile events, the sheriff’s SAR team responded to a normal number of incidents this year.
Huso said there were 57 SAR call-outs in 2017, an apparent spike compared to the 22 in 2016 and the 28 in 2015. But many of those calls were for overdue hikers who returned on their own and didn’t require a mobilization, Jilk said.
“We had a busier than usual summer but we actually were average when it came to calls that actually required volunteers going out into the field,” said Jilk, who was part of the November and January searches for snowboarders who vanished in the Mount Baker wilderness and Mt. Baker Ski Area.
Those three men remain missing and are presumed dead.
Mountaineers offer special skills
Experience climbers and mountaineers who make up the volunteer Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council are among the first people mobilized for incidents in the Mount Baker wilderness, Huso said.
“If it is dealing with the mountains, they’re usually one of our best assets in those types of situations,” he said.
BMRC president Chris Ellis of Bellingham, a Renton firefighter and avid mountaineer, said his group’s volunteers have advanced first-aid skills, as well as technical rope expertise and key knowledge of mountain conditions such as avalanche awareness, ice climbing and crevasse rescue.
“Mountain rescue is more for technical terrain, like glaciers and rock,” Ellis said.
Reaching an injured person in a remote mountain region requires the physical stamina to move quickly across steep trails and hillsides carrying tools and equipment in all kinds of weather. An overnight stay in the wilderness might be required, he said, so search teams carry food and shelter in addition to first-aid and climbing gear.
“We’re a pretty fit group,” Ellis said. “I’m in the backcountry and I have ice skills. People are in trouble and we want to help them. It’s kind of like paying it forward. If I got hurt, I’d want someone to come rescue me.”
Helicopter a key asset
For people who are critically injured in a remote location, often the most likely response is the crew of a rescue helicopter at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Oak Harbor.
Highly trained teams are stationed at the naval base to lift downed pilots from the sea or otherwise assist with military operations. But when they’re not performing their primary assignment, they’re available for civilian use.
It’s often the fastest way to save someone.
“The SAR crew here, they’re here to rescue fliers in situations where their plane goes down,” said Michael Welding, civilian spokesman at NAS Whidbey. They’re available for civilian rescues when not assisting Navy fliers, he said.
“For our guys to go out there and (perform a rescue) it’s good training. And our guys are glad to do it.”
Just last year, rescue teams flew their MH-60 Seahawk helicopter to save seven people in Whatcom County, said Navy Lt. Mark Hlousek, one of the helicopter pilots and the SAR crew’s spokesman.
Their team of 23 people includes 10 pilots, 10 rescue air crew personnel and three SAR medical technicians. SAR typically maintains either a 15-minute or a 30-minute “alert posture,” according to the NAS Whidbey website.
“We’re here for the jets,” Hlousek said. “But our pilots and air crews are some of the best.”
But the helicopter crew might be on another assignment, and its crew can’t fly in foul weather, according to a January blog post at The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based association of climbing enthusiasts.
“A lot of factors go into the decision to deploy a helicopter,” wrote member Tony Tsuboi. “One may simply not be available, or weather conditions may not permit. If a helicopter is dispatched, your particular circumstances outweighed the risks weighed.”
That urgency was evident last June, when several climbers fell into a crevasse on Mount Baker, and in July, when three inner-tubers were clinging for dear life to branches in the cold and swift-moving Nooksack River. Whidbey’s helicopter crew made rescues in both cases.
Border team a new resource
Another resource that’s being used more often by local agencies is BORSTAR – the U.S. Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue team. Its members are skilled in tactical medicine, technical rescue, land navigation, communication, swift-water rescue, air operations and others.
BORSTAR helped with the search for missing snowboarders in November and in January and its members helped in the rescue of the missing skier in late February.
“Those guys are good, and they really know their stuff,” said Whatcom County Fire District 1 Chief Mel Blankers.
Blankers said the BORSTAR team used its inflatable boats for a water rescue last year.
“We’d just got rid of our boats,” Blankers said. “We felt we couldn’t afford it. We felt we needed to focus on firefighting.”
Water rescue gear is expensive, he said, and the training requirements were taking a toll on the mostly volunteer fire department.
Ski Patrol operates in the ski area
Incidents in the Mt. Baker Ski Area usually involve injuries to skiers and snowboarders, such as muscle strains and broken bones, said Duncan Howat, president and general manager.
Howat said the ski area has a full-time Pro Patrol and a cadre of volunteer ski patrol members with advanced skiing and first-aid skills.
“They do avalanche control and out of bounds rescue,” Howat said. “They’re familiar with the area because they’re here all the time. They handle accidents and injuries on the mountain. They bring them in, and others take them for treatment.”
A snowboarder who vanished Jan. 21 and is presumed dead was a rare occurrence, Howat said.
Vitaliy Datskiy of Bellingham never completed his run from the top of Chair 6. The ski patrol was the first to begin searching in what proved to be a multi-day operation involving dozens of personnel in driving snow and high avalanche danger.
Howat said ski area employees usually don’t help with incidents outside the ski area, except to confirm if a missing person’s vehicle is in one of the remote parking lots. But employees searched for several hours into the night – using skis, snowmobiles and Sno-Cat tractors – when a skier was reported missing in the late afternoon of Feb. 23.
Fire departments have special rescue skills
Several fire departments in Whatcom County have full-time staff and volunteer firefighters trained in water rescue and technical rope rescue skills – including Fire Districts 14 and 19 in Sumas, Kendall, Welcome and Glacier, and South Whatcom Fire Authority, which serves Geneva, Sudden Valley, Yew Street Road, Lake Samish and Chuckanut.
Fire District 19’s volunteer firefighters have been trained by rope-rescue expert Rick Lipke, who owns the Bellingham-based rescue equipment supplier Conterra Inc. and helps train ski patrol members and local firefighters.
In recent years, Glacier Fire has rescued a handful of motorists whose vehicles have tumbled over the steep embankments along remote portions of the Mount Baker Highway.
On Nov. 4, 2017, four people in a car that careened over a cliff were rescued during a high-angle rope operation run by about 20 volunteer firefighters from fire districts 14 and 19. Medical personnel from Bellingham Fire and Airlift Northwest also assisted during the rescue that took nearly 4 hours, said District 19 Chief Ben Thompson.
Fire District 14’s volunteer firefighters had just completed a technical rope training course last fall when they were called to assist a hiker who fell off a cliff at remote Racehorse Falls. District 19 firefighters helped with the rescue.
Ralston said South Whatcom’s firefighters occasionally work together with local agencies such as Bellingham Fire Department and the Coast Guard.
“Last year, we had an individual who’d fallen off a trail and we had to go down and pick him up,” Ralston said.
For that rescue in Larrabee State Park, Ralston said firefighters rigged a rope system to lower a firefighter and reach the patient, who was on the beach at the base of a cliff. The injured man was carried through the water to firefighters aboard the Salish Star, the fireboat operated by Bellingham Fire.
It took several hours to locate the man, plan the rescue and coordinate his transport to the hospital, Ralston said.
“It might be a quick response, but not necessarily a quick rescue,” Ralston said. “There’s going to be time involved. Those are the expectations that we live with in the county on any special rescue. The more difficult the terrain, the longer it’s going to take.”
Dangerous work offers sense of satisfaction
Huso said it takes a special kind of person to put themselves in harm’s way to help save a life, whether it’s their job as a deputy or firefighter, or if they’re donating their time, equipment and expertise.
“I grew up loving the outdoors,” Huso said. “What better way to give back? Once you find those people, to bring someone back to their loved ones – it’s the best feeling.”
The Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter with South Whatcom Fire Authority.
While not a comprehensive list, these local and regional agencies could be among those called when special rescue skills are required.
▪ BORSTAR, the U.S. Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue team
▪ RACES emergency communications
▪ Summit to Sound Search and Rescue
▪ Whatcom County Search and Rescue 4x4 Unit
▪ U.S. Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol
▪ Whatcom County Search and Rescue Dive Rescue
▪ Bellingham Fire Department
▪ South Whatcom Fire Authority
▪ Whatcom County Fire District 14
▪ Whatcom County Fire District 19