The Early Years

HarnissRescue1956Climbers in the State of Washington have been rescuing their fellow climbers since the sport began. The well-known tragedy in the winter of 1936 which took the life of Delmar Fadden triggered the first steps toward organized rescue outside the National Park Service. Fadden, who yearned to climb in the Himalayas, made an ambitious solo midwinter ascent of Mt. Rainier via the Emmons Glacier route. He perished on the descent. The well known local climber, Ome Daiber, who had made the first ascent of Liberty Ridge with Arne Campbell and Will H. (Jim) Borrow, was contacted to help in the search. Ome and Joe Halwax began the ground search from Starbow, with Jack Hossack and Bob Buschman leaving from Summerland. They recovered Fadden’s snowshoes before being driven off the mountain by a three-day storm. After the storm abated, the body was spotted from the air and was recovered by a climbing team braving sub-zero conditions. this much-publicized recovery created great demand for Ome whenever there was need for search or rescue in alpine areas. Over a period of years, Ome developed a list of climbers that he could depend on in an emergency. This informal group conducted a large number of successful operations — some technical in nature — over the next fifteen years.

HelistuaartFollowing the Second World War, Wolf Bauer, Kurt Beam, Dr. Otto Trott, and other local climbers who had come to the Northwest from the Alps made periodic visits to their homeland. Returning from one of these visits, Wolf, who had been the founder of the Mountaineer’s climbing course, called Ome’s group together and screened a short movie, “Bergwacht”, that had been produced by the famed “Bergwacht” rescue team in Innsbruck. During a post-screening discussion, the group concluded that climbing in the Northwest had matured sufficiently to require a formal organization to effectively cope with the increasing number of alpine emergencies. Seattle Mountain Rescue, formerly Mountain Rescue council, was born. Ome’s “pocket list” formed the nucleus of the new organization. Many climbers were involved in this effort. Some of the more prominent were Wolf Bauer, Ome Daiber, Arne Campbell, Max Eckenburg, Dorrell Looff, Kurt Beam, and Dr. Otto Trott.

Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) was officially organized in the spring of 1948 under sponsorship of the Mountaineers, the Washington Alpine Club, and the Northwest Region of the National Ski Patrol. An extensive training program was immediately begun. The first full-scale mission for the new organization came in September, when Robert Thorson, a Bremerton Eagle Scout, the student body president at Bremerton High School, and the son of a prominent physician, was reported injured on the Brothers. SMR reached the accident site below the summit shortly after sunrise to find that Bob had died as a result of the fall. He is commemorated today by “Thorson Peak” located in the Pershing Massif across the valley from the Brothers.

The 1950s

SMR missions were infrequent during the first few years. In 1952 and 1953, however, SMR felt the full brunt of the rapidly increasing recreational use of the wilderness. During those 2 years more than 15 full-scale rescues were mounted for a wide variety of accidents — avalanches, lightning strikes, crevasse falls, glissading accidents, falls off cliffs, rappelling accidents, rockfall, and 4 aircraft crashes which alone claimed 40 victims. The extensive publicity stemming from these numerous missions provided the impetus to better prepare for the future. That preparation included:

  • The formation of adjacent Mountain Rescue units was encouraged in Longview, Everett, Bellingham, Yakima, Bremerton, Tacoma, and Portland.
  • The formation of Explorer Search and Rescue was encouraged to assist with the burden of lowland search in wilderness areas.
  • SMR was incorporated and its tax exempt status secured.
  • A major fund drive was conducted, and the first rescue truck and specialized equipment purchased.
  • A major recruiting and training program was developed in the Seattle area, resulting in many trained rescuers with solid climbing backgrounds.
  • The summer rescue conferences were expanded and provided more technical information to participants.
  • SMR members began to participate in the Forest Service Avalanche Schools.
  • The first tentative steps were taken toward the formation of a national organization.
  • Preparatory work was completed for the first of SMR’s popular safety movies, The Mountains Don’t Care.

The 1960s

During these years, additional well-known climbers took active leadership roles in SMR. These included Bill Degenhardt, Ira Spring, Jim and Lou Whittaker, Pete Schoening, Paul Williams, Bob Byhre, Dee Molenaar, Ken Carpenter, Ralph Johnson, Dr. Thomas Hornbein, Willie Unsoeld, and many others. This time of great activity provided the foundation for SMR’s current operation. In 1959, the National Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) was formed at Mt. Hood, with Dick Pooley of Portland as the first president. By the end of the decade, MRA included teams from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and California. The SMR symbol (originally created by Dr. Otto Trott) was adopted and copyrighted. Its adoption contributed greatly to the creation of the continent-wide MRA organization.

One of SMR’s greatest challenges came in 1960 when SMR members Pete Schoening and Lou and Jim Whittaker were involved in a fall with non-member John Day near the summit of Mt. McKinley. The mission was extensive: Fifty-four climbers representing most of the Washington and Oregon teams were flown to Talkeetna. The most seriously injured were evacuated by helicopter from 17,200 feet, an unheard of accomplishment in that day, and the others helped down to safety. The storm that moved in trapped 20 to 30 members at Windy Corner for 10 days. This experience prompted the acquisition of SMR-owned radios, and the National and local licenses were obtained. Today, several hundred sets are on the air through-out the MRA system. All the radios operate on compatible frequencies and are capable of working together.

Since that time SMR has responded to an average of numerous missions each year. We take satisfaction in having served the climbing community with skill and dedication, and look forward to many more years of effective service.

Historical Articles