Podcast | How Seattle kickstarted mountain rescue in America

Teams throughout the region provide a critical service for outdoor adventurers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It all started in Seattle.

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Mountaineers in the snow

Seattle Mountain Rescue got its start in 1948. Dozens of groups followed in its wake. (Bernhard Staehli via Getty)

For outdoor adventurers in Washington state, potential trouble can be just a few steps away. The combination of topography, weather, glaciers, avalanches and technical ascents in the state's craggy peaks mean that even the most careful hikers can find themselves in danger.

Most of them are lucky enough to never need outside help. But for those who do, mountain rescue teams are prepared to swoop in on foot or from the air. And Seattle Mountain Rescue is indisputably one of the best wilderness rescue networks in the country because it works in one of the hardest places to do it.

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Seattle Mountain Rescue and other teams of trained mountaineers are on call for alpine wilderness rescues in western Washington 365 days a year. But there's something even more remarkable about them: They're made up entirely of volunteers.  

The whole idea of rescuing people from dangerous situations in the mountains completely free of charge was born right here in Seattle. For this episode of Crosscut Escapes, we explore the origins of mountain rescue and see what it takes for someone to go from being rescued to becoming a rescuer themselves.

For more information on how to have a safe journey on your next adventure, check out Seattle Mountain Rescue’s handy preparedness guide.


Transcripts for Crosscut Escapes are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

[00:00:00] Anonymous: Crosscut Escapes is sponsored by John S. Adams, CFP and UBS.

[00:00:07] Drew Fletcher: Uh, I'm recording now.

[00:00:09] Ted Alvarez: This is Drew Fletcher. He lives in Seattle and like a lot of people who live here, the mountains are a big part of his life. About a dozen years ago, Drew decided to invite his then girlfriend, Kristi, to go rock climbing in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, near I-90.

[00:00:23] Drew Fletcher: Yeah. So let's say about 2009, 2010, I had been dating who is now my wonderful wife. We had been dating since the spring time and we had a really lovely and adventurous, of course we met, we met at Whistler and it just went up like uphill from there. We had an amazing, like six months doing really, really cool stuff.

[00:00:44] Ted Alvarez: She'd climbed a little before, but she was nervous. The mountain he chose was Chair Peak, a semi-technical climb that requires scrambling and sometimes ropes and other climbing gear to get to the top. So, Drew, who was much more experienced, pulled out all the stops to put her at ease.

[00:00:59] Drew Fletcher: So, I kind of did my best. I packed up a bottle of wine, some sandwiches. Gonna make this really comfy for her and kind of I was gonna play the role of mountain guide and just be really safe. And so we went up, uh, we went up Chair Peak and we had a lovely lunch, watched the sun go down, decided not to summit and decided to come down that day.

And I was, um, kind of threw my rope over this kind of big boulder to kind of use as friction to kind of lower down on a belay. And I was not in a very good position for that, and as soon as she weighted the rope, the boulder came out in my face.

And it took me out and it rolled me down — gosh, I don't know how far I went down — maybe 50 or 100 feet or so down a, maybe, 50 degree angle kind of steep talus slope at the end, which was a hundred foot cliff. And I luckily was able to stop at the top of that cliff, and the rock kind of went down and crashed. In the meantime, it broke my leg and a compound fracture and smashed my face up and broke some teeth.

[00:02:07] Ted Alvarez: Often, this is how accidents happen in the wild. In an instant, a perfect day in nature inverts itself into a nightmare, all order and plans go out the window and the stakes become life and death, sometimes before the victims even realize it.

[00:02:22] Drew Fletcher: Yeah. Boy. Have you ever taken LSD? Kidding, but it's, yeah, it's sort of like that. Everything changes in a moment. Like one minute, you're just in the present moment, there's a sunset, the butterflies are out and it's beautiful, and then the world just turns upside down.

[00:02:48] Ted Alvarez: Hi there and welcome to Crosscut Escapes. I'm your host, Ted Alvarez. And, I gotta say, I've been in some sketchy situations in the wilderness, myself. Times when I knew it could have gone really badly. I've been pinned on a cliff ledge with no obvious way out. And I've sped down a glacier toward a crevasse at high speeds in the pitch black night. More often than I would care to admit, I've been close enough to a grizzly bear to count whiskers.

But the difference between me and Drew has more to do with luck than anything else. Thousands of people have these kinds of experiences right here in Washington state. And most of them are lucky. This is especially amazing because our mountains are especially beastly. The combination of topography, weather, glaciers, avalanches and technical ascents in Washington's craggy peaks, both attracts adventurers and puts them in more danger.

There's a reason why Mount Rainier is the first big peak to check off your list if you're aiming for Everest. But these mountains we all love so much don't always love us back. And when that happens, that's when our luck might run out. Drew's luck had not quite run out yet. Even with a broken leg and smashed up face, he was able to think clearly enough about what needed to happen to get them out of there.

[00:04:00] Drew Fletcher: I don't recall being afraid. I remember everything just was what it was. I remember sitting on top of that cliff going, "Wow. Well, good thing. I'm up here, not down there." Um, and everything just becomes into hyper-focus. I think you're so full of adrenaline at that point, it's sort of a drug-induced, not a loopy state, but a hyper-, hyper-aware state and time just kind of stops, and you're just looking at your leg with all that blood and going,"Okay. well, we've got to stop that. We got to get her down to me. We've got to set up a repelling station. We've got to get down there." Just kind of all this logical stuff. LIke, pain, just isn't really, at least for me, wasn't really there at the time.

[00:04:44] Ted Alvarez: Despite Drew's quick decisions and actions, he and Christie couldn't escape their deadly predicament alone. By a stroke of luck, drew fell into the side of the basin where sometimes there's cell coverage. Had he fallen on the other side, he would have had zero bars. Sure enough, he had a tiny bit of cell service.

So, he first decided to call to friends and past climbing partners who could help rescuers locate him. The first sent him to voicemail, but the second friend, Dave, answered. Dave knew exactly where he was. Then Drew called 911. The 911 dispatchers relayed the message to Seattle Mountain Rescue.

Seattle Mountain Rescue is indisputably one of the best wilderness rescue networks in the country. They've been doing it longer than anyone else in one of the hardest places to do it.

As Drew inched his way, rock by rock, a small army was amassing in a nearby ski area parking lot to help out. After a few painful hours, Dave and another friend and guide named Martin arrived. They did what they could to triage Drew's injuries and make him comfortable. But Drew knew he might not escape the gully alive without a bigger rescue team.

His leg was so badly broken that his boots had begun to fill up with blood. But not much later, the cavalry came.

[00:05:59] Drew Fletcher: Oh, gosh. I can remember like it was yesterday. This man named Wes came up to me and said, "Hey, my name is Wes, I'm with Seattle Mountain Rescue and I'm an EMT. Do you mind if I help you?" I was like, holy, thank God.

And then, slowly but surely, you know, maybe, gosh — how many showed up right up there? — maybe a dozen, maybe eight to a dozen. And I saw the litter and I saw their ropes and when I saw that that was just, I, it was such a relief. I knew at that point that I was done. All I had to do was be a good patient and they were going to do everything. And, um, I choked up, I was crying. It was just such, such a relief. I knew there's a long way to get home, but I knew it was going to be okay. And they immediately started setting up ropes and a litter and Wes got my leg kind of splinted and the bleeding stopped and taken care of.

They packaged me into this litter, tying me down really tight, so it was very secure. And then they did all the rope work to kind of get me down. And at that point, all I could see, because I was tied down, was, you know, I could see Wes, the EMT, I could see his face looking at me and I could see a person on the right, person to my left, who were carrying the litter, and there's a person on my head and my toe, there are four people. And they would change every once in a while. And that's all I saw.

Well, when we got back to the parking lot and they kind of took me out of what we call the taco, they took me out of the taco shell so I could sit up and see, there were ambulances, there were maybe 50 or 70 people there. There was a, there was a food tent set up with people cooking food, there were search lights. I was like, Oh my God, this is a real, this was a real operation. In hindsight, like, of course it takes that many people. I mean, I was only 150 pounds, but still, carrying 150 pounds of a live person down that mountain is a lot of work. And those men and women work really, really hard to get me out of there and get me out of there safely.

[00:07:55] Ted Alvarez: Drew survived that frightening day. But it also marked a major turning point in his life and sparked a desire to save others. Crosscut Escapes co-producer Sara Bernard asked him when, exactly, that turning point was.

[00:08:07] Sara Bernard: At what point, during or after this experience, did you say to yourself, "I'm going to join this group?"

[00:08:13] Drew Fletcher: Oh boy. Probably the whole time, probably from the minute I saw the red rescue jackets when they were approaching me when I was injured up top. I was like, okay, all right I need to do this.

[00:08:29] Ted Alvarez: Seattle Mountain Rescue's bad-ass team of trained mountaineers are on call for alpine wilderness rescues in Western Washington 365 days a year. But there's something even more remarkable about them. They're made up entirely of volunteers. All those people carrying Drew down the mountain did it for free because they wanted to.

[00:08:49] Tim Nagle: Everyone is there because they want to help.

[00:08:52] Ted Alvarez: That's Tim Nagel. He's a member of Tacoma Mountain Rescue, a similar organization that's part of the same network as Seattle Mountain Rescue.

[00:08:59] Tim Nagle: All of us are glad to do it. None of us would be doing it if we didn't want to do it.

[00:09:03] Ted Alvarez: Basically, hundreds of members of Seattle Mountain Rescue, Tacoma Mountain Rescue or any of the other handful of regional mountain rescue groups in Washington are on call all the time. If they can make it, they go.

[00:09:15] Drew Fletcher: So we don't have an official on-call, off-call time. Three hundred sixty five days a year, you know, seven-twenty-four you're carrying your phone and will get a text message. What time is it now? There's a decent chance during this interview, we'll get paged out on a mission right today.

[00:09:29] Tim Nagle: No, it's not paid and yes, our families have to pay the price too. And, you know, if we work for somebody that we have to have an understanding employer who is going to let us go, you know, just send a message at 10 o'clock at night saying, "Hey, I'm not going to be in tomorrow because I'm going to be out trying to help somebody."

[00:09:48] Drew Fletcher: Like, "You know, guys, I know this meeting seems important to you, but I could, I might be able to save somebody's life if I leave right now."

[00:09:56] Ted Alvarez: This whole idea of rescuing people from dangerous situations in the mountains completely free of charge was born right here in Seattle. In 1948, Seattle Mountain Rescue was the very first mountain rescue organization created in the entire United States paving the way for all the others. There were some half dozen other groups officially launched in its wake in the 1950s.

Ultimately, all these groups became founding members of what is now the National Mountain Rescue Association.

[00:10:25] Tyler Severy: I think Seattle and Tacoma always want to fight about who was first. The reality was, it was kind of the same group of guys.

[00:10:36] Ted Alvarez: This is Tyler Severy, president of Tacoma Mountain Rescue. He's been a member since 1998.

[00:10:41] Tyler Severy: These are the guys that built Camp Sherman and Camp Muir up there. And they're all the same people, whether they're from Seattle or wherever they lived, there was just this, they should have called it like Puget Sound Mountain Rescue. Because it was this group of guys.

[00:10:54] Tim Nagle: I mean, it's part of the, sort of the history of Northwest climbing. There were a lot of the pioneers of climbing in the U.S. were based in the Northwest. And many of them were immigrants from Europe and had experience with mountain rescue over there. So, you know, translate it over here.

There have been some really dedicated mountaineers in the Pacific Northwest for more than a century, at least. The nonprofit group The Mountaineers, which you've probably heard of if you live in the region, was founded in 1906 and it was one of the original sponsors of Seattle Mountain Rescue.

Early legend points in particular to one man, Ome Daiber, who made the first documented ascent of the north face of Mount Rainier via Liberty Ridge in 1935. In 1936, Daiber led a well-publicized rescue mission to save a young man named Delmar Fadden, who headed up Mount Rainier alone in winter.

[00:12:04] Ome Daiber: Anyway, back to 1935 and 6, Delmar Fadden, whose life ambition was to climb Everest.

[00:12:14] Ted Alvarez: This is an old audio recording of an interview with Daiber, dug out of the University of Washington Library Special Collections.

[00:12:20] Ome Daiber: He had gone to the mountain on two shoes. This was Mt. Rainier. His twin brother, Don Fadden, went up to meet him, but Delmar didn't show up.

Don came back to town and told me about it, and I said, "We'd better get up there."

[00:12:41] Ted Alvarez: So, Daiber gathered a team of fellow climbers and set off to find Delmar. That first day, they trudged hours in the snow. They found snow shoes, but they didn't find Delmar.

[00:12:52] Ome Daiber: We dug a cave in the snow, of course, put our packs inside, covered the opening with a tarp and made ready for the night.

[00:13:02] Ted Alvarez: And then, after one very cold night on the mountain, a three-day blizzard drove the team off of Rainier.

[00:13:08] Ome Daiber: A storm rolled in and we descended.

[00:13:16] Ted Alvarez: About a week and a half later, a search plane spotted something from the air.

[00:13:20] Ome Daiber: [We had to make a] flight up over the mountain and that which we had first thought to be a tent showed up [as a body].

[00:13:34] Ted Alvarez: The crew then went back up Rainier on foot.

[00:13:41] Ome Daiber: And so we got up to the body. It was sprawled in the snow. He came to rest in a bank of soft snow. He died the victim of hypothermia.

[00:13:56] Ted Alvarez: Fadden's death and the rescue attempt made national news at the time. Even though Fadden wasn't found alive, the whole experience led the Seattle adventure community to understand the importance of having experienced mountaineers on call to help out in times of need.

People turned to Daiber and his crew quite a lot over the next few years. They first created a group they called Mountain Rescue Patrol in 1939, and then they renamed it and formalized it in 1948. The rest is history.

We'll be right back.

[00:14:37] Anonymous: The Arbor Group at UBS has a straightforward mission: to help you make the world a better place through personal financial planning and sustainable investment management. The Arbor Group works with each of their clients to pursue that client's specific goals. Learn more by visiting ubs.com/team/thearborgroup.

[00:15:05] Ted Alvarez: A lot has changed since the early days of Seattle Mountain Rescue. They've gone from a handful of missions a year to 150 or more. And technology used for rescues has changed a lot, especially in the last decade or so.

[00:15:17] Tyler Severy: When I joined, we had a phone tree.

That's Tyler Severy again, president of Tacoma Mountain Rescue, and a member of since 1998.

[00:15:25] Ted Alvarez: You would get a call on your phone, you know, on your land line. It was a guy named Gus. Gus ran all of our operations for, gosh, years and years, decade or more right? And so, you know, basically the Department of Emergency Management would call Gus. He was the guy, so he gets the call. Then he starts calling down and you know, it just goes right down the roster, you know, just dials all the numbers, you know, and just punches them in by hand.

And so we went from that, you know, to, again, a phone tree where we kind of split that work up amongst a bunch of people to pagers. You know, when the first alphanumeric pagers came out, we were like, "Oh my God, this is so cool. We can actually get mission information." And then, of course, you know, once it became that everyone had a cell phone, then you know, now we just use a paging service called Everbridge and you get, gosh, you get maps and we get lost victim profiles. We get pictures. We get last known coordinates. So, the technology has really has changed so much.

But while the tech advancements of the last 85 years have helped increase the odds that someone comes home safe, success still depends on old school methods; hundreds of hours of boots on the ground over days or weeks, many pairs of eyes scanning every rock and crevice. In plenty of cases, hauling out lost or injured hikers still happens on foot.

To an injured hiker, helicopters might seem like the soundtrack of safety, but that's not always the case. We always preach, just cause the helicopters comin', don't assume that the mission's over.

[00:16:51] Drew Fletcher: Talk about another emotional feelings, you spend a lot of time climbing up somewhere to get to a subject that hurt, they need help. And you're like, Oh my gosh, how are we going to get them out of here? And how long's it gonna take? And then you hear the helicopters coming. You see them, you hear them, and you're like, Oh my God, thank God. But then what happens is they circle, they circle around you, and then a lot of times they leave.

[00:17:17] Ted Alvarez: Weather, location and the risk the propeller blades might pose to rescuers at the scene can all conspire to keep air rescue at bay.

[00:17:25] Drew Fletcher: And so just as welcoming as it was when you heard that [sound], when you hear them going away and you're like, oh no, they're gone. It's silent again. It's us. "Okay, buddy. We gotta get you outta here."

[00:17:38] Ted Alvarez: Tyler remembers an incident on Mount Rainier where three different helicopters all attempted to swoop in to save the day.

[00:17:44] Tyler Severy: You know, the technology, you want to think that it's going to work for you. You're like, oh yeah, helicopters, comin'. It's like, well, that was three helicopters trying and failing. And so it just didn't replace the people on the ground. And that's, what's funny is that, you know, the helicopter always gets the credit.

It'll be, you know, "a helicopter rescue last night," or "the guys rescued by helicopter" and you're like, Are you, are you kidding me?

[00:18:12] Ted Alvarez: But of course, no mountain rescuer really does this for credit. They all say they do it so we can all continue to enjoy the wilderness and know that someone will do their best to have our backs should something go wrong.

[00:18:26] Tim Nagle: Well, it's one of those things by definition, you know, somebody is having the worst day of their life and you want to be there and you want to, you want to help make it better.

[00:18:33] Ted Alvarez: And one of the things Tim Nagel says he's learned from participating in over a half a dozen years of searches and rescues is that Washington's wilderness really is wild. You might see crowded trailhead parking lots and weekend warriors crowing the trails and crags, but it takes very little, in some cases, just a few footsteps off the path, to walk into a world where the variables and risks slip out of your control. That goes for experts as well as rookies.

[00:18:58] Tim Nagle: Yeah, you just, you know, one of the things that's amazing is once you get out there and you actually get involved in this and start looking for people, it's amazing how easy it is for someone to be lost. We think that it's very crowded around here and we've got so many millions of people and we do, but you know, it doesn't take much back country to get lost in.

[00:19:30] Ted Alvarez: A lot of media coverage over the past year has focused on how many more people have needed rescuing than in the past. Drew Fletcher says that's really just because more people are outside. In Seattle, mountain rescue chairperson Cheri Higman told us the same thing. She'd anticipated even more rescues in the past year, given the record numbers of people on the trails.

[00:20:02] Drew Fletcher: It is a numbers game. This rescue stuff, it's just a numbers game.

It's how many people get out there? You can almost count the percentage of people that the trails are going to get hurt or lost and need help.

[00:20:13] Ted Alvarez: Well, we've spent a lot of time hearing about horror stories this episode, it's important to remember that the vast majority of adventurers who go outside have positive experiences and a little preparation can go a long way. For a few key tips, check out this episode page on crosscut.com.

And if you do get in trouble, but are able to get cell signal, reaching Seattle Mountain Rescue is as simple as calling 911, and you won't be charged a penny.

[00:20:37] Drew Fletcher: A lot of people don't know how to get in touch with us if they get in trouble Just call 911. They'll get to us immediately. It's a really good system. And the second thing I'd like people to know is it doesn't cost anything. A lot of people are kind of nervous about that and they're afraid to call. So we would way rather have people call, um, then not call.

[00:20:57] Ted Alvarez: A friend mine who does search and rescue throughout the Rockies, once told me it's a job of extreme; really good days, really bad days, not much in between. A bad day might mean searching and searching without finding anyone or discovering that a rescue has become a recovery for a body. That can be totally demoralizing. But the really good days, those when you know you did your part in saving a life, are more common and they help power you through the bad days.

So, we'll go ahead and end this episode on a really bad day that turned into a really good day.

[00:21:28] Drew Fletcher: I was on a long search for a missing woman who was a trail runner. And I think the search had gone on for a week, maybe 10 days, a long time. It was getting to the point where the deputy kind of makes the call, you know, this is the last day. If we can't find her, then she's probably not alive. And if she is alive, we just can't search anymore. We've done what we can. And it puts those deputies in a horrible position of, you know, playing God if they call off the search and a person is alive, they're kind of saying a death sentence, but if they're not alive and we can't find them, we can't find them and to send another a hundred people out another day...

So anyway, it's a very tough call for them. Anyway, this was clearly the last day that we're going to search for this woman. And, um, I was partnered up with, oh, with, with Dave, the guy who was the first on scene when, when I was rescued.

Everybody, you know, everybody's gung ho. Everybody wants the helicopter ride to the high, to the cool spot and do the best coolest climbing. And everybody wants to be the person to find the subject.

So, between getting cell phone pings and other forensics, they get a pretty good idea where the high probability areas and Dave and I are feeling kind of lazy, like, let's just take the, whatever the last one, let's go for a nice hike today.

So we did, so we grabbed like the territory number 9 out of 10 or whatever, whatever. Long story short, we got down to this really remote lake and we came around the corner and there she was.

Dave heard her dog and we shouted up — I don't remember her name — "Are you," let's say Jill, "are you Jill?" "Yeah. Are you my rescuers?" And it was just, again, we all just hugged and cried. Yeah. It's just amazing. And then we're able to radio back to base and say we found her and it was just, just amazing. They were able to send the helicopter in and get her out, take her to the hospital. Yeah, that was, that was just ... being the first person on scene, that's a pretty special moment.

[00:23:45] Ted Alvarez: That's it for this week's episode. It was reported and produced by me and Sara Bernard. Our executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Many thanks to Drew Fletcher, Tim Nagle, Tyler Severy and the other folks we spoke to, Seattle Mountain Rescue chairperson Cheri Higman and former chairperson Nick Constantine.

Thanks also to the University of Washington Library Special Collections.

Our theme music is by the Explorist.

You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes.

And if you like this show, please review us; it really helps other people find us.

Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Ted Alvarez and we'll be back with another episode next week.


About the Hosts

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.