Cut from the Same Stone

At SMR, we love climbing mountains. From peaks here in the Pacific Northwest, to summits across the globe, our entirely-volunteer search and rescue team loves a good challenge with a view. We’re mountain climbers at heart and we’ve got the record to show it. Check out where we’ve been, how high we’ve climbed and some of our expertise both on and off the mountains—including our day jobs!

SMR is an entirely volunteer and donation-based technical search and rescue team. For those interested in supporting financially please go to check out our donation page or visit us on Facebook at Seattle Mountain Rescue.


Looking Back on Infinite Bliss

Two years ago this month, Vertical World and the climbing community lost one of their own: Ross Halverson. Getting him down from midway up Mt. Garfield was one of the most technically challenging rescues we have done; given the recent rock fall that destroyed some of the climbing anchors, rain, and uncertainty of his exact location on the climb.

There isn’t a September that goes by or time we climb at Vertical World we don’t think about those few days.

The mission report from the rescue is included below. It reminds me both how proud I am to be a part of this determined group of rescuers, and how mistakes can happen to even the most proficient climbers among us.

On Monday September 8th 2014, at 1137, SMR was paged to assist with recovery of a climber that suffered a fatal fall on Infinite Bliss, a 23 pitch rock climb in North Bend. The accident happened sometime Sunday, but the climber’s partner, who was the reporting party, was unable to reach 911 until Monday morning. Larry, Heather, Jason, Garth, Bree, Greg, Wes, Bob, and Taylor responded to Valley Camp around 1230, which served as our base for the operation.

Garth initially spoke with the reporting party, who thought that the fallen climber was on a ledge somewhere between pitches 10 and 15. Given the time of the day, construction on the road that limited travel, and rain forecast for the night, it was too late to start climbing the route. So, they decided to see if they could get a visual on the fallen climber from the base of the route, the climber’s path along the first few pitches, or from the other side of the river to help with planning the recovery.

Team 1 (Wes and Heather) and Team 2 (Taylor, Bree, and Jason) explored the base of the route, while Team 3 (Greg and Garth) explored the route with binoculars from the other side of the river. Larry remained in base as the Operations Leader. Snohomish’s Helicopter Rescue Team (Snohawk) was also called out to see if they could help locate the fallen climber from above. After landing at Valley Camp to get briefed around 1445, they flew above the climb to see if they could locate the subject, with Bob joining them. None of the teams were able to locate the subject, with Snohawk returning back to base around 1630 and teams returning around 1830. Given the weather called for rain on Tuesday, the teams decided to resume searching Wednesday.

Tuesday morning, the deputy contacted Larry to meet with the reporting party to see if he could get more detailed information about the incident and where the subject might be on the route. After looking at the pictures of the climb, the reporting party estimated that the subject was located around pitch 13, based on what she could see in the pictures of the route and where she had spent Sunday night.

Later Tuesday afternoon, Larry and Bree discussed the options for the following day. They decided it would be best to tackle the rescue in two waves. First, a small group would start the climb early in the morning to locate the fallen climber and lower him down the climb. Second, a larger group would deploy around 1430 in the afternoon to help with the steep angle evacuation down the climber’s trail.

Later Tuesday evening, Bree, Garth, and Taylor met to work through the specific details of the climb/lowering system they would use as well as what gear would be needed. Larry worked with Wes, who would be the rescue leader on the ground, as well as Mark, ESAR’s operations leader, to align the plan for the ground evacuation as well as resources for the day.

Wednesday morning at 0615, Bree, Darby, Taylor, Larry, Bob, Bill, Art, and Garth reported to base. The members held an initial brief outlining the plan for the day. Team 1 (Bree, Darby, and Taylor) would climb the route. Team 2 (Bill and a deputy) would try to get and maintain eyes on Team 1 from down below. Larry (Operations Leader), Bob, and Art would remain in base.

Teams 1 and 2 headed into the field at 0700. Team 1 reached the base of the climb at 0830 and headed up. They soon found themselves in the clouds, so Team 2 was unable to get eyes on. Team 1 located at the subject at 1120 near pitch 10, 3 pitches below where they expected to find the subject. They packaged the fallen climber and started lowering the subject at 1215.

Given how quickly the team climbed and located the subject, Larry decided to accelerate bringing in additional resources and asked additional teams to start arriving in base as quickly as possible.

Wes and Karl first arrived at base and reviewed the plan/resource plan for the afternoon. Garth, Brian, Gordy, Rich, Yogesh, and Drew later arrived at base around 1300. They divided into three teams; bringing in additional climbing gear, the litter, 2 rigging kits, and 2 300 foot ropes. They left base at 1330 and headed up the trail at 1430.

Three teams of ESAR members as well as Nick from SMR later arrived at base. They also divided into three teams, with two teams (Teams 6 and 7) heading into the field at 1515 and the other (Team 8) heading into the field at 1615. Teams 5 and 6 brought in the litter wheel and 2 additional 300 foot ropes.

Teams 3, 4, and 5 arrived at the base of the climb at 1520. Team 1 arrived at the top of pitch 1 around 1600, and the teams worked together to get the subject down from there, which was one of the more challenging pitches: there was a long, angling traverse to get the subject back to the climber’s trail. A member of team 4 walked a rope from the start of the route up and over to the rescuers, and that line was used to pull the patient package across to the climber’s access trail. Everyone was back at the base of the climb at 1700.

All teams then worked to transition the subject to the litter and begin lowering the litter down the trail. Eventually, when the slope angle decreased, they were able to put the wheel on the litter and arrived back at the trailhead at 1905.


Photos from the rescue:

Accident summary from Rock and Ice:

A Day in the Life of SMR Member Jim Pitts

Raising a family, a career and teaching with the Mountaineers is quite a juggling act. Throw in service as a field responder for SMR and things can get a little crazy! For me, SMR feels more like a second job than volunteer work. The fact that SMR is unpaid only proves how dedicated our membership is to our charter. It’s this dedication and the support of those around me that makes everything “work out.” It’s difficult to explain beyond this. Instead I will offer a few narratives that demonstrate what I am talking about.


(Jim practicing aid climbing at Vantage with SMR member Jim Gellman)

It’s mid August 2015 and I am sorting through my rock gear for a climb of Kangaroo Temple with the Mountaineers. I am leading the climb. The climbers are students I have been working with over the last year as part of the Basic Alpine Climbing curriculum. It’s 9am when a page arrives.

“ESAR 4×4 SMR SPART. 2 subjects trapped at Chetwoot Lake.”

Chetwoot Lake is remote and requires route finding after Big Heart Lake. This could be a long and difficult pack-out if an injury is involved. The truck is always packed so I head out.

As expected, it’s a long day. The subjects are cold and wet but fortunately, not injured. Their gear is distributed among the team. They hike out under their own power.

I get home around 3am. I am supposed to meet the students at Washington Pass at 7am. There is no way I can safely make the drive. The students spent the night in their cars at the pass. They won’t know something has happened until the morning. I send an email that I hope they will get later in the day.

I just got home from a long mission for SMR. I am in no condition to drive to the North Cascades. I barely made it home from Skykomish. There is excellent cragging in Mazama.They sell guide books at the Mazama Store just down the highway from the pass. Have fun!

Later that day I get a reply:

We figured this is what happened! No worries–you made the right call in getting some sleep after what I’m sure was a crazy mission. We had a great time in Mazama!

It was awesome that my students were so supportive. I have found that SMR’s mission is well recognized and supported by the climbing community.  

My employer is also very supportive of SMR. Each year I spend about half my PTO on SMR training and missions.

This past May I was at work on a Monday when a page comes in just after lunch. I forgot to mute my phone so the alert is loud. Everyone around my desk hears it and knows it’s from SMR.  

“SAR Callout: All Emergency workers – Overdue Technical Climber. Kaleetan Peak.”

It’s late in the day. There’s still a lot of snow near Melakwa Lake  It’s warm but the weather hasn’t been great. I am already packed. I cancel my remaining appointments for the day.

“Good luck Jim,” says a co-worker as I hastily head towards the door.

I get an assignment when I arrive at base. Lead a team up to Hemlock Pass and establish a radio relay. A faster, “hasty” team has already left for the summit. They will need the relay to maintain communications with base.

The hasty team locates footprints near the summit but not the subject. I am among several who opt to overnight near Hemlock Pass so we can get an early start the next day. I call base on the radio.  

jim2 (Jim settling in for a chilly night near Hemlock Pass)

“Base this is Jim. Can someone please radio my wife and tell her I am OK?”

“No problem.”

She knows I am on a mission and that we take care of each other. Work will sort itself out.

The second day is very long. The search is a massive operation. King County’s Guardian 1 helicopter joins the search. My team covers a large area around Melakwa Lake, Kaleetan Peak and scenic Indian Flats.  

After the mission I turn on my phone. A stream of text messages rolls in. One was from my youngest son, from several hours earlier.

“Where are you? How did it go?”

“Wrapping up the mission. It went well. Should be home soon.”

“You are a hero dad.”

I’m not sure about that. The subject hiked himself out and was “found” near a trailhead. Still what dad doesn’t want to hear this from their son?

He starts training with ESAR this fall!

JimPittsSon   (Jim helping his son James with his navigation homework)