Hiker rescued near Nooksack Falls

Visitors watch Nooksack Falls from the observation area in 2008.
Visitors watch Nooksack Falls from the observation area in 2008. The Bellingham Herald

Firefighters rescued a hiker in a daring high-angle rope operation Sunday, Jan. 24, after she was seriously injured in a 50- to 75-foot fall from a cliff near the scenic Nooksack Falls east of Glacier.

“It was kind of a complicated rescue, but we got it done with some great effort by the folks from (Whatcom County Fire) District 19, who are very well trained and equipped,” said Chief Jerry DeBruin of Whatcom County Fire District 14, who was incident commander at the scene.

Firefighters rushed the victim by ambulance to Glacier about 4:45 p.m., where she was flown by helicopter to St. Joseph hospital for treatment. Her age, name, hometown and condition were unknown.

There’ s a steep dropoff, kind of a waterway, and she slipped on some rock.

Chief Jerry DeBruin, Whatcom County Fire District 14

Fire service radio dispatches said the woman was unconscious and not moving for about 20 minutes after the fall, which was reported about 3:20 p.m. Witnesses had to drive several miles downhill to Glacier to summon aid, because mobile phone service is spotty in the rugged, mountainous terrain.

During the rescue effort, radio dispatches indicated that the woman had regained consciousness and was vomiting — possibly a sign of head injury.

Light rain fell during the afternoon, with snow on the ground and temperatures hovering just above freezing as rescuers raced against growing twilight that could ground the waiting medevac copter.

“There was a concern for hypothermia,” DeBruin said.

Nooksack Falls is an 88-foot cascade on the Nooksack River, and the most famous waterfall in the Mount Baker area. It is about 40 miles east of Bellingham on the Mount Baker Highway, according to the website Aaron’s Waterfall World.

All-volunteer Fire District 19 serves the mountain community of Glacier and the volunteer Fire District 14 serves the rural areas of Sumas, Kendall and Welcome.

DeBruin said the woman and her companion were hiking in an area away from the scenic viewpoint, and did not cross fences or ignore signs that are designed to keep visitors back from the cliff’s edge. Several people have died by falling over the precipice.

“There’ s a steep dropoff, kind of a waterway, and she slipped on some rock,” DeBruin said.

Fire District 19 firefighters arrived first and Fire District 14 crews were summoned for mutual aid, DeBruin said. A Bellingham Fire Department Medic One unit was dispatched and by coincidence, one of the medics assigned to that unit Sunday was Jared Trow, a Bellingham firefighter-paramedic with extensive experience in technical rope-rescue operations.

“He just added a whole other level of expertise,” DeBruin said.

DeBruin said rope technicians set up a dual system and belayed firefighters to the victim, where she was harnessed and strapped into a Stokes basket and raised.

Whatcom County Search and Rescue had been near the Mt. Baker Ski Area, and its members headed down the mountain to assist, DeBruin said.

In all, some 20 firefighters and others from four agencies participated. No injuries were reported among the responding emergency crews.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-715-2805, @bhamMitty