The Chair Peak Incident (or Why I Joined SMR) by Drew Fletcher

I watched, a bit confused, as the earth began to turn. In slow motion. First one way and then another. The sun was suddenly blocked out. First by the boulder and then by the wall. The boulder crushed my head, face first, against the wall. I heard a snap as a couple of teeth shattered. I remember a slight pause in time. I wondered if I would be alive or dead in the next second. This is it. One more second to live. And then everything went to fast forward…spinning, falling, snap, ouch, snap, bang, confusion. And then the world was still. Silence. Everything stopped. All was still, serene, and calm. I felt nothing. Just floating.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The summer was lingering and the nip of autumn was just barely noticeable as the September sun began to melt away the morning mist. Kristy and I had been dating for about six months and had fallen in love. I decided that a perfect ending to a perfect summer would be to take Kristy on her first alpine rock adventure. So on this perfect autumn day we set out to climb Chair Peak in Washington’s Alpine Lakes region.

Chair Peak (photo courtesy of Sean McNally)

Chair Peak (photo courtesy of Sean McNally)

We were both in good shape and had no problem getting ourselves up into Chair Peak basin, which is just North of the Alpental ski area at Snoqualmie pass. I knew the area well. I had summited the mountain a few times and had skied the basin numerous times in past seasons.

Kristy had spent a reasonable amount of time outdoors and while she had done some indoor rock climbing, she had limited experience on outdoor sport climbs. And she had never spent any time in the alpine. At the approach to the ridge, just above the basin, the terrain becomes solid 4th class, with lots of talus, scree and all the crap you’d expect to see in the Cascades. Soon after reaching that point, I noticed that Kristy was starting to sketch out…just a bit. In hindsight, I often wonder if she had some intuition about what would happen later that afternoon.

I thought. “I love her so much.” And I wondered “what can I do to make her feel safe and to make this day memorable so that she’ll want to come back and climb with me again some day?”

We put on our harnesses and roped up. I attempted to play the role of mountain guide and I short roped her up to the ridgeline as safely as I could. The climbing wasn’t difficult, but it was definitely exposed. An unprotected fall at this point would certainly end badly. So we just took our time. I used every bit of protection I could find to try and help Kristy feel safe and confident. I remember loving life at that moment. The sun was radiating heat off of the rock back into my face and arms. The view was spectacular; the air had that alpine quality, the endorphins were kicking in. And I was experiencing this magical moment with someone whom I adored.

The Chimney (photo courtesy of Andrei Maksimenka)

The Chimney (photo courtesy of Andrei Maksimenka)

After a short scramble we reached the top of the ridge and took a look at the chimney, the first pitch of 5th class climbing on the route. Kristy’s intuition again kicked in and after a brief discussion of the route, skill levels and safety, we decided not to summit that day. We already got what we came for – a beautiful introduction to alpine climbing.

Talus above the Basin (photo courtesy of Andrei Maksimenka)

Talus above the Basin (photo courtesy of Andrei Maksimenka)

We ate our lunch and started our descent. There are a series of gullies along the ridge that empty into the basin. I decided that rappelling down one of those gullies would be more fun than scrambling down the chossy route we had climbed earlier. Kristy had never rappelled before, so I decided to lower her off of a belay on the first pitch and figured I’d show her how to rappel on the next pitch. I demonstrated to her how the lower would work, tossed the rope around a large boulder and slowly put some weight on the system.

The earth moved. I fell. I was hurt. And finally BANG!!! The sound of the boulder crashing into the basin far below reverberated throughout my body and echoed throughout the mountains.

I was alive. I took inventory of myself. My teeth were in pieces. My head hurt and was bleeding. I noticed some moisture in my boots, and realized they were soaked with blood. My left leg was clearly broken in a few places and was bleeding. It looked nasty and unnatural. “Oh shit. I’m going to need some help.”

I looked up and saw Kristy on top of the ridge, maybe half a rope length away. I was perched on a tree at the edge of a large cliff. The slope above me to Kristy was 50 – 60 degrees and full of loose rock. Below me was a sheer cliff. She looked scared. I remember how much that shook me, seeing this ultra confident woman looking shocked and frightened, as if something really bad had just happened.

“Kristy – are you ok?” I screamed. “You have to get down here!” Somehow. Shit, the rope came down with me, she has no rope. “You’re going to have to figure it out. Be careful, there’s no protection.” Tears welled up as I said “I can’t help you.” The pain began to beckon and told me that I needed to focus on me. “Kristy. I love you. Get down to me. NOW!!! I need you!!!”

Cell reception in that area is iffy at best. Had I fallen on the other side of the ridge, towards Snow Lake, there would be have been none. My first calls were to my climbing partners – Garth and Dave. I knew that Garth was a member of Seattle Mountain Rescue and he’d know what I should do. But his answering machine turned out to be of little help. But I was able to reach Dave, and then was able to get through to 911. I didn’t have a GPS device with me. In my confused state it was difficult for me to describe exactly where we were. I told 911 that we needed help and that I would find a way to get myself to the Thumbtack, a known landmark where I knew the rescuers could find me. Dave knew exactly where we were and how to reach us.

Getting back down into the basin wasn’t easy. Kristy had never rappelled before. She had to do that alone, as I wasn’t much help. Through a long series of often comical, mostly painful maneuvers, we made our way through the rocks and snowfield and arrived at the Thumbtack a couple hours later.

My climbing partner Dave arrived shortly after with another friend (Martin from Pro Guiding). I was so happy to see them, I’m sure I started to cry. They gave me some warmer clothes, did some triage on my injuries and made me as comfortable as they could.

It wasn’t too much longer before I heard some shouting from below. “Drew – is that you? We’re from Seattle Mountain Rescue. We’ll be with you in a couple of minutes.” It’s difficult for me to communicate the sense of relief I felt when I heard these guys and gals. I knew at that moment that everything would be ok. I just had to sit back and do what they told me. I could relax. I could let them take over.

Wes and Ben from SMR and ESAR were the first of the rescue team on scene. Wes took over as the medical lead and helped get the bleeding under control and splinted my leg. More importantly, he flooded me with a sense of confidence as I knew that I was in good hands and everything would be ok. Ben began to formulate the technical plan for how the rescue crew would get me down the mountain. These guys were the real deal – they knew the terrain, they exuded competence and I knew I could trust them to get me home safely.

They wrapped me in the litter like a human taco and maneuvered me down the mountain. I couldn’t see, but I could tell there was a lot going on – ropes, gear, commands shouting, lots and lots of sweating and grunting. They worked incredibly hard. Eventually we reached the Snow Lake summer trail where there was a brand new team of rescuers with fresh lungs, legs, and enthusiasm ready to wheel me down the mountain. I later learned that these folks were mostly from the ESAR unit of Search and Rescue. I just couldn’t believe how many people were there working so hard to help me. It was quite overwhelming. Meanwhile, Wes never left my side. He monitored my medical and mental condition the entire trip down.

A couple of hours later the entire entourage arrived at the Alpental parking lot. I was unfolded from my taco and could finally see what was going on. There were somewhere between 50 – 75 people, all there to help with the rescue. There was a food tent set up and serving well deserved meals to the rescuers. There were a bunch of official looking vehicles – a SAR command truck, communications, police SUVs, fire & rescue vehicle, ambulance…I mean, it was a thing. I was so grateful, humbled, tired, and very much in pain. They put into an ambulance and whisked me away to the hospital.

Exactly one year later I submitted my application to join Seattle Mountain Rescue, and I’ve been an active member ever since. I am passionate about helping others in the mountains. I know what it feels like. I’ve been there.

Drew and Kristy Diving in Fiji

Drew and Kristy Diving in Fiji

Exploring Use of Drones for Search and Rescue by Garth Bruce

Information. We’ve all become used to having it for everything we need. “What’s the weather going to be like next week, in the next 3 hours? Exactly when will UPS deliver my new backpack? Can I make it to the climbing gym and not be stuck in traffic for an hour?

The information we get for rescue missions today is usually just a call from the sheriff’s office, “hiker stranded on cliff face on Guye Peak.” We know the general area but we wouldn’t know exactly where, if they’re injured, if they’re at risk of falling, or even the best way to reach them. Same information we had 30 years ago.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS aka drones) can provide better information and help answer critical questions which can potentially save someone’s life. They can quickly be deployed into the field and report better information to the rescue team “The hiker is on a small but solid rock ledge exactly 722 feet from the summit at these GPS coordinates. From the real-time video, it appears they are in no immediate danger of falling but have very little clothing and are at serious risk of becoming hypothermic. They cannot be lowered safely given the terrain. The best approach will likely be from the west.” Detailed and accurate data like this can dramatically speed up a rescue operation, provide valuable information to help the subject, and help ensure the safety of the all rescuers.

Currently, the sheriff’s department does not allow the use of drones in rescue operations in King County. We see the use of rescue drones as a valuable tool in the near future and are actively testing them to see how they could be used in a multitude of scenarios: a missing Alzheimer’s patient in Duvall, an avalanche on Granite Mountain, a lost hiker on Green Mountain, an evidence search in Kent, a missing boater on the Snoqualmie River, and many others. As soon as the King County Sheriff’s office allows UAS’s to be used for Search and Rescue operations, we will be ready to help them, and the people who depend on us.

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)

Mission Spike

Seem like we’ve been on more missions than normal lately? It’s because we have!

We’ve had 35% more missions than 2015 and 70% more than 2014 (compared to this same time during those years). Here are a few things you can do as you head out if you don’t already:

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Welcome to Our New Blog

Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) just returned from the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) Spring Conference in Port Angeles where we were joined by 65 rescue units from across the country to train in the latest techniques, share best practices and celebrate the organizations rich history.

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