Off Beat: In tough spots, mountain rescue team makes like MacGyver

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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A climber on Mount St. Helens broke a leg. You have a pair of skis, a fleece jacket and some webbing.

Two hikers who got lost in the snow near Ape Cave are very cold and very wet. You have two body bags.

What do you do? If you're with the Yacolt-based Volcano Rescue Team, you improvise.

These mountain rescuers have to be quick on their feet in more ways than one. (Their rapid-response approach was described in a recent Columbian story). But traveling quickly also means traveling light, so they bring what they think they need, no more, no less.

After sizing up the situation, they might find that they need something else. Radioing for more gear means another two to three hours of waiting. For an injured hiker, that can be too long.

"Sometimes, you have to think outside the box," said Mike Williams, 36, who's been with the team for eight years.

In March, two men had to be rescued from near Ape Cave in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just south of Mount St. Helens, when they got lost on the snow-covered trail. They lost a lot of body heat, and one of them, a diabetic, had low blood sugar.

"We had to get their wet clothes off them," Williams, of Battle Ground, said.

They fashioned shorts from trash bags. Then they zipped the men into body bags provided by Sgt. Jay Johnson of the Skamania County Sheriff's Office, who was patrolling in the area. They also had the men put hand-warming packs under their armpits, and on their chests and feet.

"Part of wilderness training is to use whatever you have," Williams said.

During a training session, the team — including two members with skis — climbed Mount St. Helens. It became a real rescue when a climber injured an ankle at the 6,200-foot level. The team improvised a sled by lashing together skis and ski poles.

On another rescue, they used a ski to splint a broken leg and cushioned the climber's inner thigh with a fleece jacket.

When luck is in their favor, other people in the backcountry will volunteer their snowmobiles.

"People want to help. We'll hop on the back or they'll give us the keys and say, 'Here you go,'" Williams said.

These modern-day MacGyvers are sponsored by North Country EMS but this stand-alone team relies on grants, fundraisers and donations.

And, of course, their own gumption. Make that MacGumption.-- Patty Hastings

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.