JBLM copters vital to Mount Rainier rescues
TACOMA — Scott Salkovics was getting ready for bed May 30 when he got a call from the National Park Service.
Six climbers scaling one of the most dangerous routes on Mount Rainier hadn’t been heard from in more than 48 hours.
Salkovics’ Army Reserve unit and their CH-47 Chinook helicopters were needed on the upper reaches of Carbon Glacier.
Salkovics, a chief warrant officer, belongs to the Joint-Base Lewis-McChord unit that helps do search-and-rescue for missing climbers who attempt to scale the icy peaks of Mount Rainier.
The previous week, the reservists had spent four days on their annual training. They practiced hoist operations on the mountainside and identified hazardous conditions, such as crevasses and avalanche zones, on popular climbing routes.
Now, with the phone call, Salkovics knew he’d be flying a real mission the next morning with his unit, the 1st Battalion, 214th General Support Aviation Regiment.
Despite the adrenaline rush, he knew he needed sleep.
“After a while you just learn to turn it off and go to bed,” said Salkovics, chomping on a cigar while reflecting several days later.
After a three-hour search on May 31, park rangers turned the mission into recovery mode after concluding the climbers were dead.
Their fall from Liberty Ridge was the deadliest incident on the 14,411-foot mountain since 1981, when 11 people were buried in an avalanche.
Chuck Young, chief ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, said Monday that the park service is pursing an active investigation and will continue with a limited search.
He said Liberty Ridge is open for climbers but continues to be defined as a dangerous and highly technical route.
Young said the park has not recovered any bodies or gear from the six missing climbers.
“We may never find out what happened,” he said.
Young said the Reserve unit is an invaluable asset.
“We feel very lucky that they are here and that they are willing to assist in rescuing people off the mountain,” he said. “We would have a hard time doing this without them.”
He said the Chinook helicopters allow the unit to rescue climbers above 10,000 feet, an altitude that cannot be reached with most civilian aircraft.
The reservists have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they supplied humanitarian aid after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake rocked Northern Pakistan in 2005.
But it is back home in the South Sound where they sometimes face extreme weather such as whiteouts and tough winds that can exceed 100 mph on Mount Rainier.
Chief Warrant Officer Rich Bovey said the partnership with the Parks Service provides critical service to climbers, and allows pilots to receive key experience in a high-altitude environment.
“We get a unique opportunity to go train in the park,” he said.
Bovey, who’s been flying Chinooks for 17 years and has served with the Reserve unit for 10 years, said summer is the busiest time because of an increase in climbers.
The unit responded to 12 incidents from 2011-2013.
Salkovics said this year is already shaping up to be an active season. In addition to the search for the ill-fated climbing party, the reservists successfully rescued a 27-year-old woman who was climbing the less perilous Muir route May 28.
Young said the Reserve unit was called in because the woman experienced a medical emergency while climbing above 10,000 feet.
Many of the 25 all-volunteer members have full-time careers outside of the Reserve, Salkovics said. He said the unit has been able to retain experienced pilots over the years. He’s been flying off and on with the unit for 20 years.
David McCrumb, an instructor pilot with the unit, said one of its primary goals is to transport injured climbers to a medical facility where loved ones can be present.
“Even if two weeks down the road the injury was so significant that the individual didn’t make it, we’ve provided that family with a sense of closure,” McCrumb said.
He said it’s always upsetting not finding a missing climber on a mission.
But Bovey said it’s not uncommon.
“It’s a sad reality for a lot of the families,” he said.
Another testament to the power of the mountain: It swallowed an Army Chinook that crashed below Liberty Ridge in 2002. All aboard survived, but the helicopter was never recovered.
Although the 1-214 provides a critical service, Bovey said the pilots are just one small part of a much larger search and rescue operation that includes the Air Force, park rangers and rescue climbers.
“We are just a cog in the greater machinery of the search-and-rescue effort on Mount Rainier,” he said.
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