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Corvallis Mountain Rescue saves two lives in search & rescue mission

Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit set off for Three Fingered Jack in mid-August on a search and rescue mission that saved two lives, Sept. 20, 2017. (image courtesy Benton County)

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- On August 13 at 6:30 p.m., the Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit set off for Three Fingered Jack on a search and rescue mission that saved two lives.

"This was a very long mission rescuing two people suffering from exposure on that mountain," said Todd Shechter, President of CMRU and Benton County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Council Representative.

CMRU specializes in technical alpine search and rescue missions and is one of several non-profit organizations within the Benton County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue (SAR) program. SAR is a non-profit volunteer unit for the Benton County Sheriff's Office that searches for and rescues missing or lost people, and performs body recoveries and evidence searches. Members of CMRU are SAR-certified individuals with mountaineering and outdoor experience that enable them to care for and evacuate individuals from glaciers, high faces, deep canyons and irregular terrain.

On August 13, the 911 dispatch center in Linn County received a call around 5:30 p.m. from two climbers on Three Fingered Jack. The climbers reached the summit, but got lost in the clouds on their descent and took a wrong turn that resulted in a life or death situation.

After lengthy phone conversations with the 911 dispatch center and cell phone forensics performed by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and Civil Air Patrol, first responders were able to pinpoint the last known location of the climber's cell phone.

Through a mutual aid agreement with Benton County Sheriff's Office, the Linn County Sheriff's Office requested the assistance of the Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit (CMRU).

CMRU maintains a large 4-wheel drive rescue response vehicle that carries extensive rescue and medical equipment. CMRU further equipped the vehicles with communications and display facilities to allow its use as an emergency operations command and control center. As part of the partnership with CMRU, the Benton County Sheriff's Office houses, maintains, insures and fuels the CMRU vehicle.

"It is such an important piece to have the positive relationships we have with Sheriff Scott Jackson and Kevin Higgins, the county's emergency manager," said Shechter.

"As a non-profit, we can fundraise for equipment and training, but knowing our vehicles are stored in a weather-proof facility, insured, maintained and fueled up is invaluable. We know we can hit the road as soon as we get the call.

"We have a great partnership with the Benton County Sheriff's Office."

Within 70 minutes of receiving the mutual aid request, CMRU volunteers left Corvallis in their vehicle and mobile command and control center.

During the two hour drive up to Santiam Pass, the CMRU volunteer team ran through several mission possibilities, familiarized themselves with the trails, prepared medical and rescue supplies, and formulated alternative plans so they could jump into action once they arrived. At the trailhead, CMRU met up with the Eugene Mountain Rescue (EMR) team.

Ideally in a case like this, the Oregon Army National Guard performs a helicopter rescue. Due to the cloud cover at the summit of Three Fingered Jack that night, a helicopter rescue was not viable. Knowing that helicopter rescue was unavailable, CMRU received a special weather forecast for cloud patterns from National Weather Service in Portland.

Luckily, communication with the climbers was maintained via cell phones. Hiking up the Pacific Crest Trail to the last known location of the climber's cell phone, CMRU volunteers asked the climbers to flash their headlamps down the mountain to help rescuers identify the climbers' location. Rescuers' first contact with the climbers via headlamps occurred around midnight. The initial contact indicated CMRU was roughly a mile away from the climbers.

Over the next four hours, CMRU volunteers tried to reach the climbers.

"It was a very difficult locating where they were. On the west side of Three Fingered Jack, there are many mountain spires, valleys, and smaller mountains that make it so you can't see. You think you're going one direction towards the subjects and turns out you're a mountain ridge away," said Shechter.

Eugene Mountain Rescue (EMR) stationed two volunteer rescuers on the Pacific Crest Trail to watch the headlamps of both the climbers and the CMRU members, and to guide CMRU towards the climbers. The climbers also had whistles, so the rescuers were able to use sound in addition to sight to locate the climbers.

At 3:56am on August 14th, CMRU made first contact with the climbers. In the dark, two rescuers rappelled down 150 ft. from a ridge below the summit of Three Fingered Jack and traversed across the mountain side to find where the climbers found shelter in a small cave on a rock ledge.

The climbers had begun their journey at 2:30am on August 13th. By the time CMRU rescuers reached the climbers-a female and a male-the pair were on the mountain over 24 hours and the female was suffering from life-threatening hypothermia. For over two hours, the rescuers tried to warm the climbers using heat blankets, insulated "puffy" jackets, honey sticks and Gatorade.

By then, the cloud cover lifted and the Oregon Army National Guard in Salem authorized a UH-72A Lakota helicopter rescue. The male was going to be able to hike out but the female had deteriorated to such an extent that she was unable to move by her own power.

CMRU had to come up with a "plan B."

Over the next three hours-utilizing both the Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit and the Eugene Mountain Rescue team-rescuers assembled another rope system to move and transport the female to a location where the helicopter could hoist her off the mountain and get her to emergency medical care.

"Think of doing this on a mountain that is crumbling, has rock fall and very difficult anchor positions. There's no getting around the fact that it was a very dangerous mission-but we had to do it and we tried to do it in the safest and most efficient way possible," said Shechter.

Once the female was hoisted off the mountain by Oregon Army National Guard, the mission turned to the male climber and the two CMRU volunteer rescuers. The rescuers plus male climber had to be hauled up the 150 ft. the rescuers had rappelled down earlier in the mission before they could traverse below the summit of Three Fingered Jack.

As the rescue teams descended the mountain, both the Linn County Sheriff's Office SAR members and the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office Mounted Posse hiked up the trail to bring supplies and aid to the rescue teams.

After a 24-hour mission that required local, regional, state, and federal agencies and volunteer groups, CMRU volunteers returned to their homes.

Todd Shechter's take of their heroic act is simple: "It's very rewarding to help fellow mountaineers live another day because of the work that we do."

CMRU's annual fundraiser is the upcoming Corvallis Ski Swap happening on October 20-22, 2017. For more information visit corvallisskiswap.org.

You can learn more about Benton County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue at co.benton.or.us/sheriff/page/search-rescue.

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