Volcano Rescue Team puts training to good use

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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To learn more

Visit the Volcano Rescue Team's website.

Want to go climbing?

Mount St. Helens summer climbing permits are sold out for climbing above 4,800 feet till mid-September. Travis Southworth-Neumeyer of the Mount St. Helens Institute says up to 100 permits can be issued per day and that current conditions are tricky. Click here for its website.

There’s still snow and ice on the mountain, but it’s melting rapidly. The most dangerous part, he says, is for people who glissade (slide) down the mountain and can’t stop once they reach a boulder field.

“The footing is really difficult in that transition area,” Southworth-Neumeyer says.

Often the MSHI Mountain Steward Volunteers will arrive first to an accident and stabilize an injured climber until the Volcano Rescue Team from Yacolt arrives to provide more advanced medical aid.

YACOLT — At 10 a.m. on a Saturday, it is a training day for the Volcano Rescue Team. The mission is to set up one of the most complicated rope systems used to rescue someone stuck in a canyon: a highline. By late afternoon, they will be on a real rescue mission.

The team of volunteer mountain rescuers has responded to 23 rescues so far this year, on track to surpass 2011’s 26 rescues. There have been no fatalities and no shortage of challenges.

For their Saturday training, they have to slide team member Nate Eterno, 35, across a rope system over the East Fork of the Lewis River and lower him down, just above the water.

“If we can do this, we can do anything,” said volunteer Leslie Brown, 55, a rock climber.

The team hiked out to a spot overlooking the water, just upstream from the Moulton Falls swimming hole. In the Northwest, most canyons have rivers at the bottom of them, and the East Fork is no exception.

They quickly wrapped red tubular webbing around a big, strong tree to create anchor points for their highline and did the same on the other side of the river.

Mike Williams, 36, an engineer in his day job, was lured into the Volcano Rescue Team by the technical work.

“That’s what intrigued me,” he said. He’s been with the team for eight years and can explain the mechanics behind their work.

A large pulley, called a kootenay carriage, moves back and forth along a trackline, and Eterno’s harness is clipped into the carriage.

“Here I go,” Eterno said with a smile as he stepped off the edge of the cliff.

Team members either pull or let out the rope to move him along the trackline. When they’ve got him placed just right, he’s lowered toward the water.

The system is a flurry of ropes, webbing and carabiners, like many of their other rescue systems.

After tearing down the highline at Moulton Falls, the team returned to the North Country Emergency Medical Service station in Yacolt to put away their gear. Before they could unload it, a call came about a man who jumped off the Moulton Falls Bridge and suffered injuries.

Six VRT volunteers went right back to assist Fire District 13 and North Country EMS with the rescue.

“With VRT sitting right here, it made sense to use the resources we had,” said Tom McDowell, assistant chief of North Country EMS.

VRT lent some manpower by pulling an inflatable boat carrying paramedics across the river to the injured man. He was put on a long backboard and transported to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center for minor injuries.

When a call comes in, the team could venture as far north as Mount Rainier and as far south as Mount Bachelor in Oregon.

They frequent certain “trouble” spots in the Mount St. Helens area. At the Ape Cave, hikers often trip and fall in the tube. Hikers may also get hurt trying to climb out of the lava tube’s skylight and also may become lost.

The Plains of Abraham, on the southeast side of the mountain, are popular with snowmobilers who may get turned around, stuck or injured.

Helping the lost

Many rescues occur at night when there are fewer people and the victim, if lost, stops moving. Sound travels better at night, volunteers say, and it’s easier for a victim to see an approaching rescuer with lights.

The problems they deal with change with the seasons.

“You’ve heard of the bell curve. We have the recreation curve,” McDowell said.

Injured hunters in the fall. Snowmobile accidents in the winter. Lost climbers and berry-pickers in the spring and summer.

“It’s definitely its own beast,” Williams said of being a mountain rescuer. “It requires its own training and set of skills that a typical firefighter or paramedic doesn’t have.”

Volunteers have to supply their own gear, which they suspect is why the team attracts people who are already into mountaineering and want to give back.

“The common denominator is they all like being outdoors,” said Brown, the rock climber.

After volunteering with the VRT, she is a lot more careful as a mountaineer.

“I’ve seen too many people’s bad days,” she said.

She understands the time it takes to rescue someone. Typical missions to the Ape Cave can take up to eight hours. Luckily, improved cellphone service around Mount St. Helens and the installation of emergency call boxes at popular points around the mountain means more people can reach emergency services.

“The big picture is,” Williams said, “we’re here to help people.”