By Codi Hamblin
The only light coming from the cold garage is the flickering of tea-lights representing the life of the stranded rock climber rescuers are attempting to save. Crouched and huddled together are four small clusters of men and women dressed in puffy down jackets and wool hats. Fumbling over blue, green and red climbing ropes, each group attempts to quickly assemble a rope system to lower the climber from a cliff. The team to first assemble their rescue line with the candle remaining lit receives a box of homemade brownies.
This scenario is no ordinary rescue mission for Bellingham Mountain Rescue volunteers, but is one of many training sessions the crew faces to prepare for the rescues that may lie ahead. Each year, thousands of people venture into the backcountry and climb the peaks of the North Cascades, but not everyone makes it back unharmed. That's when the skills and energy from mountain rescue volunteers are vital.
"We live in a beautiful area to recreate in, and people come from all over the country to see it," says Lynn Dayton, who has volunteered since 1967. "You can call it an attractive nuisance."
Bellingham Mountain Rescue formed in 1955 after back-to-back accidents occurred on Mount Shuksan, which encouraged a rescue team to form and help save the climbers from both accidents, Dayton says. The team organized to create Whatcom County's mountain rescue squad, and today is part of the Mountain Rescue Association, a national organization serving as a resource for other search and rescue teams in the United States.
Mountain rescue volunteers respond to various scenarios in backcountry terrain, says Abby Gorham, who has volunteered since 1972. Most missions involve rescuing lost or injured hikers and mountain climbers in the wilderness and in alpine terrain.
Being called to a rescue is unpredictable, says Harry Patz, a volunteer since 1972. The busiest months are April through September, which is the peak season for trail hiking and mountain climbing. Volunteers respond to calls in the winter as well, which may include snowmobilers, backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and ice climbers.
A rescue mission begins when someone in need of help in the wilderness calls 911. The call is then transferred to the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office, Gorham says. The volunteers for this mountain rescue unit work with two search and rescue coordinators from the sheriff's office, who then transfer the call to search and rescue, Gorham says. Search and rescue contacts Gorham, Patz or Dayton, who are the operations leaders for the Bellingham unit and are responsible for contacting and organizing volunteers.
Operations leaders run the show when responding to a mission, Gorham says. They retrieve the rescue team's truck from the search and rescue building and provide each team with directions and information that will help team leaders with their decision-making.
When riding in the truck out to the mission, Gorham says she tries to create a plan of action: Who will be the medic? Who will be in charge of rigging the rope? What skills do volunteers have necessary for this rescue?
Western senior Becca Nelson, a second-year volunteer, responded to her first rescue mission last September. She was excited to finally participate, she says, and was nervous because she didn't know what to expect.
"I thought, 'Sweet, this is my chance,' " Nelson says as her eyes widen and a smile spreads across her face. "The first thing that went through my mind was, am I qualified for this mission?"
Prior to attending the rescue she says she had different ideas about what to expect, but was surprised to find the event wasn't as stressful as she anticipated. Nelson says she was unsure how she could help since the rescue was on glaciated terrain, and she has limited experience traveling quickly across glaciers. She helped carry water and ropes up to volunteers who were up on the glacier for most of the night rescuing a climber from a crevasse, and she carried packs down the mountain for those volunteers exhausted from the mission.
Rescues are not only physically exhausting, but mentally exhausting, Nelson says. Participating in the mission made her anxious for future rescues.
"I'm not on this planet to serve myself," Nelson says. "It [Earth] is a lot bigger than that, and I want to have a way to give back."
Western junior Brent Smith, another second-year volunteer, says weather is one of the biggest challenges during a mission. Sometimes the rain will pour as volunteers are quickly traveling across icy glaciers, which become more slippery from rain. He says spending time in various weather conditions helped prepare him for the conditions he faces during a mission.
"Sometimes the challenge is trying to keep yourself and the rest of the party safe out of harms way," Smith says.
Volunteering as a student requires time management, Smith says. Responding to a mission can be a tough decision because he may have a test the next day and the rescue can last for three. Nelson says she turned down a request because she had too much schoolwork to leave behind.
"Volunteers want you to try and be involved as much as you can, but they are not going to look down at you if you can't make it," she says.
Dayton says because volunteers receive more missions in the summer they always need to have a pack prepared with the necessary equipment during this season, including an extra duffle bag of gear in case the rescue lasts several days. He usually carpools to work, but in the summer he drives alone with his pack and equipment so he can quickly respond to a mission should one occur, Dayton says.
Responding to a rescue is an emotional rollercoaster because so much is happening, Dayton says. A mission is like trying to fit pieces of a puzzle together, and the challenge is collecting as much information as possible in order to make the necessary decisions, he says.
"As you are getting more information, your anxiety and adrenaline increases," Dayton says.
Missions can last from a few hours to several days. Sometimes volunteers cannot participate from start to finish, Dayton says. He once worked through an entire mission, which lasted several hours, searching for three young children who had wandered from their parents' vehicle.
"I was there to see the parents and kids reunite," he says. "To see the anxiety of the parents relieved, that was really worth seeing."
The 25 volunteers improve their mountaineering skills by attending at least 11 training sessions each year to prepare for rescue missions.
"We use training to build skill and team camaraderie," he says.
A single volunteer spends approximately 50 to 100 hours of their time preparing and attending rescues every year, Dayton says. He can't imagine not using his mountain rescue skills to save somebody lost or injured in the wilderness. But as a mountain rescue volunteer he needs his family's support, sometimes at their expense, he says.
"I was called away for 24 hours on my daughter's first birthday," Dayton says. "[My wife and daughter] still haven't forgotten that."
Most of the volunteers spend their free time enjoying the outdoors, and can always be found recreating on Mount Baker. One of the reasons he joined mountain rescue, aside from helping others, was to meet outdoor enthusiasts he can trust with his life on the mountain.
"[Volunteers] are really serious about what they do, and they have a lot of fun with what they do," Smith says.
Having completed their training, one group hollers after successfully tying their rescue line. The candle glows, illuminating their faces. The fluorescent lights are flicked on, revealing a garage that houses several ambulance-like rescue trucks and a World War II amphibious troop vehicle. Old oil leak puddles dabble the cold cement floor, and tall shelves filled with rescue gear line the back wall.
A volunteer distributes brownies to the winning group. As they indulge in their chocolate prize the other volunteers abandon their own projects to see how the team assembled their mainline. In a real-life scenario it's not the brownies, but the rewarding satisfaction of helping another.