Juneau's mountain rescue team earns national certification

Posted: Monday, March 29, 2004

JUNEAU Juneau Mountain Rescue team members do things that many only dream of in nightmares.

Hanging onto slippery rocks about 200 feet up Nugget Falls to rescue a stranded climber a few years ago continues to be ''spooky to think about,'' said Steve Lewis, founding member and director of the team.

A recent adventure at the Eaglecrest Ski Area wasn't a real life-and-death emergency. The man who was supposed to have a broken back was in good health.

But for an audience of evaluators, the team did what it needed to do to be recognized as one of the elite mountain rescue teams in the country.

''I think the community is fortunate they've got an accomplished active mountain rescue team here,'' said Rocky Henderson, a member of Oregon's Portland Mountain Rescue since 1986 and a past president of the international Mountain Rescue Association.

Henderson said he was part of the group that gave passing scores to Juneau Mountain Rescue on two of three challenges last year.

The team earned a spot as one of 56 fully accredited teams in the United States and Canada by handling this month a more difficult high-angle snow and avalanche challenge than they had dealt with before.

Officially the honor will come with a vote at the Mountain Rescue Association's meeting in June in Anchorage. But Henderson said that's just a formality.

It's an honor to earn a spot in the bigger fold of elite mountain rescue teams, Lewis said. Bruce Bowler of SEADOGS Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search said his group frequently works with Juneau Mountain Rescue. He considers the accreditation ''a recognition of the job they've been doing.''

There was a time when the community would wait to see if lost people would find their way down from trails before mobilizing searches, he said. But the more aggressive, dedicated and professional search-and-rescue teams operating today are saving lives.

Lewis' team, Bowler said, puts the ''rescue'' into the search-and-rescue business. Team members often put their own lives at risk, he added, recalling the night at Nugget Falls. The good thing about that night is that everybody survived, Lewis said. But as he was climbing up the rock face just to the right of the falls, the young man who was stuck ''looked at me and said, 'Catch me.' I think I cussed at him.''

Founded in 1982, the group has 20 volunteers.

''The coolest thing is the whole team concept,'' Lewis said. ''This is normally a big-city thing because of the amount of resources it takes.''

Jim Calvin, who has been a team member for three years, said he appreciates the support that comes from the community, especially since members pay for their own equipment. He said people bring different skills to the group, but they share a love for the outdoors.

Team members also are good at what they do, and the standards are rigorous.

''We've been training very hard for a year-and-a-half, hanging from ropes in crevasses and off of steep slopes. You never know when the pager is going to go off,'' he said.

Lewis said there are calls in which there is no chance of finding people alive, but mountain rescuers get a great adrenaline rush from the call for help.

''It's pretty cool to go out and save someone's life,'' he said. ''After you get done and they give you their hugs, tears come to your eyes and you hug each other.''

Tony Carroll writes for the Juneau Empire.

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