Avid Eastside climbers play an important role in response time to help rescue lost and injured recreationalists on the most challenging terrain in the Northern Cascades.
To speed response time, Seattle Mountain Rescue, an elite technical mountain rescue group, uses an Eastside Fire & Rescue station in Issaquah as a hub to pick up a Ford Expedition loaded with rigging, ropes, communications equipment—everything members need for a technical mission. It keeps a pair of donated snowmobiles there as well in case needed.
The group is part of King County’s nonprofit, volunteer Search and Rescue Association (KCSRA), which includes multi-faceted member groups ready to mobilize and lend their skills to search and rescue efforts.
The current chairman of Seattle Mountain Rescue, Gary Yngve, says the group began more than 60 years ago as a grassroots effort to rescue fellow climbers before more organized efforts such as KCSRA existed. The group's 59 members live all over the Seattle area and carry pagers, making themselves available at a moment’s notice, night or day.
“We do this with volunteer labor with a high degree of professionalism, and our operating expenses for vehicles, equipment, and training are paid through donations, with minimal expense to the taxpayer,” Yngve says. Though the SMR helps with all kinds of search and rescue operations where a lot of boots on the ground are needed, such as the recent searches for missing toddler , the group is especially depended on when a rescue involves steep terrain or highly technical mountaineering skills.
Seattle Mountain Rescue members recently helped with several fatal incidents nearby, including a plane crash on Mount Si and .
Todd Stone, vice-chair of SMR, said members carry pagers, and many have jobs that allow them to take time off as company sponsored community volunteer service for rescue missions—Boeing and Microsoft are examples. And since the members are outdoors enthusiasts, it’s not uncommon for someone to be near the area of an emergency.
Rescues rarely fit into bankers’ hours, however, Stone adds.
“Pagers don’t generally go off at 10 a.m.,” he says. “An awful lot of our work happens at night. It’s pretty common just as you settle in the pager goes off.”
"When I go out on a rescue I ask the guys, 'Have you ever been hiking in the daytime?'" jokes Sammamish resident Dave Rusho, who's been a member of SMR for more than 20 years.
Rusho says that SMR becomes more busy in the spring and the fall typically, when people aren’t prepared for quickly dropping nighttime temperatures, or don’t realize they’ll need a flashlight after daylight savings time begins.
Rusho has seen the organization evolve since becoming a member in 1990, and he’s participated in every type of mission, from searches (such as for the airplane on Mount Si), to trail injuries which require rescuers to bring in a litter to carry the injured person out, to more technical rescues and fatalities.
“Helicopter rescues are really important here,” he says, and often require a member of SMR to climb down to where a person has fallen to assess their condition and to prepare them to be hoisted out.
Unfortunately, he says, body recovery is too often part of the work that must be done.
“The first time was really hard,” but he says the desire to be of service outweighs the difficulty and people find a way to deal with what they face in rescue missions.
Aaron Zabriskie, a third year medical student who has lived both in Sammamish and Issaquah, says that though there are tragedies, there is often a positive outcome in rescue situations.
“We go on 60 to 70 rescues a year, and not all are as intense as life and death,” he says, but in addition to being skilled climbers, “you have to be someone who enjoys fairly intense experiences.”
Zabriskie, like many of the members of SMR, first learned about the group from fellow climbers; he attended the University of Washington with Yngve, and they have often climbed together. Other climbers join the group after they themselves are rescued, Rusho says.
Knowing each other helps the group evaluate the skill of potential members, as well. Volunteers must be at least intermediate climbers and demonstrate that they have at least three years of alpine mountaineering experience, including technical rock and glacier, and they must provide references from at least two other climbers.
Climbers also take ongoing training in technical aspects—all on volunteer time—and maintain certifications required by KCSRA.
With members of the group living around the Puget Sound, Zabriskie says that those who live on the East Side are in a unique position to often be first responders. He says this was illustrated by an August 2008 incident in which three teenagers were trapped in a collapsed snow cave on Snoqualmie Pass. Zabriskie and two other members were able to reach the snow cave quickly from their locations in Issaquah and North Bend, saving the teens.
“That was a classic situation on the Eastside where we could respond quickly, and the severity of the situation dictated that we do so.”
Rusho says it’s a great experience to be able to translate his love of the outdoors and of this area into a valuable service to the community. Most SMR members are very familiar with the mountains here, and perhaps few as familiar as Rusho.
Once SMR was called out for a rescue at Pumpkin Seed Lake, and, he says, “I was the only one who had ever been there and knew where it was.”
At 76, Rusho is more fit than most people a third his age, and in his earlier climbing years, he climbed Mt. Rainier 10 times, but he says he’s amazed still at the skill of some of the other members of SMR, which counts among its ranks people who have climbed Mt. Everest and K2. Rusho says recently he’s stopped going on some of the more technical missions out of deference to the age of his body, but he continues to participate in searches such as the search for Sky Metalwala.
Though Rusho's wife, Kathy, is sleeping better now that he's not out on missions so much, the couple agree that the excitement of being involved is worth it.
Rusho says he might consider moving into more of a training role with SMR, but he hasn't decided.
"It's not really my personality," he says. He also volunteers with the Forest Service and hikes daily.
Meanwhile Zabriskie, who is currently on a training mission of a different sort, working at a hospital in Alaska until June, participates in the group as its membership director, screening new applicants. He says he can't wait to get back on missions with SMR.
"We have really inspiring guys in our group," like Rusho, he says.