Some Sitkans pass the winter months huddled around board games and TV screens. But volunteers for Sitka Mountain Rescue gather in a different way. This group of 46 volunteers trains several times a month to rescue lost and injured hikers scaling nearby mountains. KCAW’s Katherine Rose tagged alongside the group as they work towards re-accreditation this spring.
Ever been at a party with a bunch of people who know each other so well they have invented their own language, and you can’t quite keep up?
“Right now we’re going over the bowline, which we use a double interlocking bowline when we attach our litter to our systems,” Ron Duvall explains to me.
“What does that mean,” I ask because that explanation went right over my head.
That’s because I’m at a party with the volunteers of Sitka Mountain Rescue. And not just any party. A knot tying party.
“It’s kind of fun to do this in an informal setting where it’s dry and warm and we’re not battling the weather at the same time,” Duvall says.
Today we’re in a volunteer’s living room. It’s toasty warm, and a group of men and women are learning to tie knots for rope systems, the fail safe when they have to rescue someone. They’re developing the muscle memory necessary to hoist from places like Mt. Verstovia or Bear Mountain. But first, they’ll have to master the deck.
They do drills, lowering themselves off the house’s deck into the front yard. But the next time they’re building rope systems, conditions could be more hazardous.
“It brings together people who love steep places, love remote places,” says Eric Matthes. “People who like ropes, people who feel happier when they’re hanging off the side of a cliff.”
Matthes is the technical team director for Sitka Mountain Rescue. He says there are some professional rescue groups around the country, but most work is done by volunteers.
“Most places are kinda like Sitka,” Matthes says. “Small mountain towns. People who enjoy getting out, have some expertise in that area. So, if somebody is lost or stuck in a steep place here, who is the best person to come get them? People who live here and know this terrain.”
Begun in the early 1960s, Sitka Mountain Rescue is a part of the Mountain Rescue Association, an international group that brings together mountain rescue teams from around the world. Groups are re-tested and accredited every five years. Last year, the Sitka group went through the accreditation process.
“We were tested on search, can we find people, can we manage a search, avalanche, and we didn’t pass everything,” Matthes says. So this spring, he says they’ll be re-tested on the skill they didn’t pass.
“One of our strengths is our technical systems,” Matthes continues. “We know how to build rope systems. We don’t drop people, everybody is safe. One of our weak areas is the critical point where we make first contact with someone.”
He says that one might think rescuing someone over the edge of a cliff is the pinnacle of difficulty for a rescue team. But vertical rescues can be surprisingly clear cut.
“The whole danger for cliffs is in the transition over the cliff,” Matthes says. “Once you’re on the other side of the cliff, things are pretty straightforward because all of the weight is on the ropes.”
But what about a rescue in a steep place, where you can approach on foot? That’s where it gets a bit more challenging.
“When people are stuck in steep places they have adrenaline, they have a survival instinct. They can hold on a lot longer than they think they might be able to,” Matthes says. “But when help arrives, their body starts to let down. So it’s really important to know how to handle that situation both psychologically and physically.”
So they began running drills a little differently, focusing on how to reduce risk when approaching someone who needs help. And to practice that technique, they have to get close to the real thing.
A few weeks later, we’re off trail, on the south side of Harbor Mountain, running a scenario on a steep slope.
“Hello sir, my name is Ron, I’m with Search and Rescue. I’m just gonna block you here so you don’t slide as we prepare to get you out of here,” Duvall says as he secures another volunteer while the rest of the team prepares the litter and rope systems.
“I want a guy with better breath,” his team member jokes.
Each volunteer practices securing someone against the side of the incline. They’re serious and intentional, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a little joking around. Matthes says you have to find balance when doing this kind of work.
“You have to enjoy this work to do it well. You have to find time to laugh together, time to share the stories of our lives together, and times to be really quiet and focused, and do what needs to be done.”
The Sitka Mountain Rescue team will go through the re-accreditation process this April. Those interested in volunteering can call the Sitka Fire Department at 907-747-3233.