February 26, 2020 / Comments (0)

An Existential Threat to Mount Hood’s Volunteer Rescue Experts

The backcountry skier who fell to his death on Mount Hood February 25th was alive when two climbers found him near Illumination Saddle and called for help. That phone call set into motion an accident response system that has been functioning for decades on Mount Hood – one that relies significantly on the effort and knowledge of volunteers. The rescue party that rushed to the scene was not composed of paid public employees but rather highly skilled local volunteers who routinely drop everything and risk injury and death to help others on Mount Hood.

In this case, the volunteers from Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) had to shift their mission from rescue to body recovery. The skier died before they could reach the Saddle. But the PMR volunteers handled the mission with the dignity and competence that has long defined their work on the mountain – and that of the other volunteer rescue teams who assist injured and lost skiers and climbers on Mount Hood, one of the most frequently climbed mountains on the planet.

As PMR missions go, the Feb. 25th body recovery effort was not exceptionally extreme or dangerous, especially when compared to past missions involving summit airlifts or hurricane-force winds. Yet the fairly routine operation drew a huge response of support from the mountain community. That’s because Portland Mountain Rescue and the volunteer-based rescue system PMR represents have been facing an existential threat.

An Abrupt Change

As first reported February 16 by Noelle Crombie of the Oregonian/OregonLive, Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts announced plans to end the county’s use of volunteer search-and-rescue groups such as PMR and replace them with a new system controlled and presumably funded by the county. Volunteers from PMR, Mountain Wave Search and Rescue, Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue, and North Oregon Regional Search and Rescue must either switch over to the County’s new organization or turn in their search-and-rescue cards.

The reasoning behind the drastic change has been vaguely related to a mountain rescue that resulted in a lawsuit and a $25,000 settlement against the county. However, it remains unclear why a minor settlement in one case would justify a complete dismantling of a volunteer system that has proven its value again and again on Mount Hood. Furthermore, as Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” host David Miller pointed out during an on-air discussion with Roberts, Portland Mountain Rescue was not found liable in the lawsuit, and was praised by both the Sheriff’s department and the family that filed the lawsuit.

Slammed with Criticism, and an Abrupt Turn-around

Roberts’ authoritarian move has been slammed with criticism ever since the news came out. PMR and the other mountain rescue groups that patrol Mount Hood are widely respected in the mountain community, and their long record of success speaks for itself. Critics of Roberts point out that the county simply does not have the bandwidth nor the budget to replace the collective skills and experience of the volunteer groups. In addition, the ham-handed manner in which the change has been made and announced is unlikely to stir motivation among the volunteers expected to join the new county effort – or supporters expected to contribute financially.

Roberts had announced that he plans to establish a new nonprofit called Clackamas County Search and Rescue, to raise money for the nonprofit to lower the public expenses for the cash-strapped county. Of course, that is exactly what PMR and the other nonprofit volunteer rescue groups that patrol Mount Hood have been doing for decades, with a level of success that Roberts will be hard-pressed to approach. In fact, PMR’s annual Mountainfilm Tour fundraiser is coming to Portland’s Revolution Hall on March 6. The theme of this year’s event will be solidarity, and PMR volunteers are planning a special demonstration of their teamwork skills for the event.

Amid the growing criticism, Roberts finally backed down and offered a compromise with PMR on February 26. Following a “productive meeting,” Roberts released the following statement:

“After a productive discussion this morning, we’re excited to announce a mutual agreement in principle on general terms for a closer relationship between Portland Mountain Rescue and the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. We all believe this arrangement will improve safety on the mountain. This partnership will strengthen our existing integration of personnel and resources, and will make planning and mission response more efficient.”

PMR added the following statement:

“We really appreciate Sheriff Roberts’ focused effort to improve search and rescue in Clackamas County. These efforts have already manifested in improvements to communications and mission planning that are making a difference in the field. The concepts we have negotiated will move Portland Mountain Rescue toward becoming a unit of Clackamas County Search and Rescue. At the same time, it will preserve attributes of Portland Mountain Rescue we believe are critical to successful mountain rescue. We are looking forward to working out the details of this arrangement with the Sheriff and building a stronger joint team.”

‘Hold the line on independence’

Even as the conflict simmers somewhat, PMR supporters such as Andrew Halliburton are encouraging the volunteers to stand firm and to continue resisting the move. As Halliburton advised on Facebook:

PMR, maintain the mission, hold the line on independence and most importantly, remain volunteer. Things might get quieter for a while (go climbing!) but this story is familiar; it plays out time and again, everywhere. The alternative models fail because they are naïve and unsustainable. The attributes of PMR make it unique; it will remain a vital SAR resource. Keep up the good work!

Portland Mountain Rescue has been conducting missions on Mount Hood and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest since 1977, with a mission to “search for and, hopefully, rescue people in trouble either above the timberline or in high angle areas below the timberline.”

Anyone wishing to support Portland Mountain Rescue in these times of turbulence can attend the fundraiser coming up March 5 at Revolution Hall. Details can be found here.

The backcountry skier who died February 25th was the the 20th person to die on Mount Hood since 2011 and the 128th Mount Hood casualty since 1883, according to a database created by the Oregonian/OregonLive.

Photo by Erik Broms, text by Shred Hood Editor Ben Jacklet

Last modified: February 28, 2020