A hot Memorial Day weekend sent hordes of recreationists into the mountains, leading to a slew of accidents that strained local rescue resources.
All that activity prompted local search and rescue teams based around the Cascades, which are run through county sheriff departments, to call for help from other jurisdictions.
Spokane County Search and Rescue answered that call last Saturday.
“It’s been crazy over there,” said deputy Thad Schultz, Spokane County’s search and rescue coordinator. “Typically, we don’t go on those missions. It’s just been a crazy year and they’re burning through their resources.”
The Spokane County Search and Rescue team flew to a hiking area near Marblemount to search for a 66-year-old man from Mount Vernon who didn’t return home from a solo day hike on Hidden Lake Trail on May 23.
After several days searching steep, snow-covered terrain without a sign of the man, Skagit County searchers asked for help. Spokane County’s helicopter flew the team to Skagit County from Felts Field at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, according to a county news release.
Six searchers, all of whom had specialized mountain-rescue experience, exited the plane directly onto the ridge at an elevation of roughly 4,400 feet, the release said. From there, the team moved 1,400 feet up the mountain slope on foot, while the helicopter searched from above.
Search and rescue members looked for avalanche paths and tree wells that the hiker could have been swept into and they dug through the snow. The team faced ice, steep terrain and ongoing avalanche risks, according to the release.
The search was further obscured by a foot of fresh snow that had fallen Thursday and Friday.
The helicopter flew the team back in the afternoon, before the hottest part of the day could raise the avalanche risk. As of Saturday, the man still hadn’t been found.
Schultz said during the flight back they got another request to pick up two lost hikers on top of a mountain. The Spokane County volunteers declined due to fatigue. Another team responded instead, Schultz said.
Spokane County’s Search and Rescue team, like most in the country, is nearly all volunteer. That system is being stressed by the surge of outdoor recreation during the pandemic. Although Spokane County hasn’t seen a spike in calls, other counties have.
Snohomish County Search and Rescue crews responded to 457 missions in 2020, a 38% increase from 2019.
Holiday weekends like Memorial Day are notoriously busy, particularly when the weather is unseasonably warm, Schultz said. Many hikers, basking in the lowland heat, head into the mountains ill-prepared for deep snow, ice and rock.
“They don’t look at the big picture and they don’t have the appropriate equipment,” Schultz said.
There was one death and one injury in the Enchantments, a popular wilderness area near Leavenworth, Washington, said Vernon Nelson Jr., president of Chelan County Mountain Rescue. A hiker broke his ankle and had to be helicoptered out, and a climber on Serpentine Arete fell and died, he said.
Normally, CCMR responds to one call over Memorial Day Weekend, he said.
“Is that more than normal? I don’t know,” Nelson said. “I do know Snohomish County was pretty busy.”
Similar stories were posted on various hiking and climbing Facebook groups. One person reported numerous flights into the Enchantment core area last Sunday and Tuesday. Others reported similar observations.
The story was similar nationwide. There were more than 200 calls for help at the Grand Canyon over the holiday weekend.
Schultz urged anyone heading into the mountains to have the 10 essentials, be prepared for the conditions and have some basic training.
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