A Cabin Haven for Search and Rescue

by Judy Wagonfeld, Donor, Volunteer and Friend of the Fund

SAR Cabin under construction by Mitch Pittman
SAR Cabin Exterior Construction by Mitch Pittman

The phone would ring at one, two, or three o’clock in the morning – back in the days before cell phones, texting or e-mails. As the “Call-Out” person for Pierce County ESAR (the non-technical branch of Search and Rescue, or SAR), I’d scribble down the who, what and where of an urgent search. Then, I’d notify the thirty rescuers on my list and out they’d go, speeding to the meet; cars loaded with packs, equipment and handfuls of snacks – while I returned to bed.

Now, of course, rescuers have mobile phones and receive both calls and texts. However, not much else has changed. Without hesitation, these altruistic and robust souls respond. But what do they do when they need a meal or shut-eye? At Mount Rainier, they had no inside space for rest, food or organization. The park administration wanted to change that. And now, with funds from Washington’s National Park Fund (WNPF), that’s about to change.

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SAR Training Exercise

Who are these dedicated folk springing from bed and/or leaving family and jobs on a moment’s notice? They are unpaid citizens who undergo rigorous training: 164 hours mastering navigation, rescue techniques, search classification and planning, first aid, CPR, outdoor survival, data gathering and photographing the dead for the medical examiners. Once certified, many responders specialize in areas such as ski, horse or climbing teams. Every year they must update their training. They purchase the required equipment, as well as gas and dealing with wear and tear on their vehicles, all out of their own pockets. No responder gets paid or reimbursed; no victims get charged.

They trek into forests, ravines, rivers, raging storms, deep snow and thick muck; often bushwhacking, scrambling up peaks or belaying down slippery slopes. They battle rain, soupy fog, gale force winds, frigid temperatures and extreme heat. They lug heavy equipment for rigging rescue ropes. They get hungry, dirty, wet, tired and bruised from thick brush and falls. They seek overdue hikers, lost mushroomers, children who wander from a campground, people with broken bones, avalanche victims or those suffering hypothermia – such as Karen Sykes, Seattle Times outdoor journalist, who died during a Rainier winter day hike.

Although the national parks have employees trained for rescues, their numbers fall short of the need. Volunteers must fill the gap. WNPF agreed that for all their grueling work they deserve a spot for planning, training and decompressing after a tragic occurrence. It is impossible to save everyone and devastating when arriving too late.

“We’re always searching for places for Search and Rescue (SAR) people to stay,” says Brett Hergert, Operations Manager for Mount Rainier National Park, a position that includes contacting and organizing Search and Rescue missions. When Hergert notifies a sheriff about a park incident, he scrambles to find vacant park housing units. Currently, responders camp in tents, under tarps, in their trucks or campers or drive home and back. It’s stressful but they are enterprising and they know friends and relatives anxiously await news of their loved ones.

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1936 Search and Rescue Cabin Built by Civilian Conservation Corps

Next summer (2018), a new era dawns. Volunteers will settle into a restored building christened as the “SAR Cabin”. Constructed at Longmire in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the historic building housed staff until the mid-1990s when disrepair made it uninhabitable. Basically, it seemed a tear-down.

But Rainier’s park management resisted, dreaming of restoring this cabin to its “rustic park” style. Competing in the 2016 National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express #Vote Your Park campaign, Mount Rainier won $180,000 out of the renowned “Partners in Preservation” annual $2 million grant. The award formed a down-payment for the cabin effort. WNPF’s and REI’s joint Rainier climbs raised another $25,000, while members of Washington’s National Park Fund’s board and community took the project up and over the top to $223,000.

“The SAR Cabin will fill a need we haven’t been able to address,” Hergert says. “What’s also great about having the cabin is that…[SAR organizations] can host training,” says Hergert, adding, “and they can spend time there, in the park, in case something happens.”

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SAR Cabin Before Construction, Courtesy of NPS

For Jared Infanger, Mount Rainier’s Historical Architect, restoring an historical building mediates past and present. Infanger enters each project with park historian Brooke Childrey’s help. He analyzed original photos and building materials in order to replicate the 1936 design by the NPS Branch of Plans and Design.

Inspecting the 743 square-foot cabin, a one-story structure of four rooms and a bathroom, Infanger found a building sinking into the ground. Damaged by infiltrated moisture and mold, its maladies included a leaky, mossy, shake roof, cracked and poorly insulated walls, rotted window frames and cabinets, a crumbling foundation and dry rotted timbers. Needless to say, it did not meet current electrical, plumbing or fire safety codes.

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SAR Cabin Before Construction, Courtesy of NPS

“We couldn’t afford outside contractors,” says Infanger. “Rainier’s three staff carpenters have been working on it – while also dealing with other park needs.” The first step involved raising the cabin and replace the foundation with a taller concrete and rebar base to prevent future moisture and pest damage. The workers then repaired or replaced structural supports, wood siding and the historic window frames. They re-glazed window glass and refinished doors. To minimize fire danger, Infanger opted for a shingle roof.

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SAR Cabin Before Construction, Courtesy of NPS

Inside work includes new electrical wiring, appliances, a hot water heater, a bathroom and ceiling timbers. Behind new drywall and fresh paint, updated wall insulation insures warmth. Infanger hopes to find flooring similar to the original material.

“I can’t overstate how critical Search and Rescue and Mountain Rescue personell are,” says Hergert. “We do 50 plus searches a year, starting with our trained staffers for initial hasty searches”, he adds. “When the incident is longer than 24-48 hours we send requests to organizations or agencies associated with the Washington State Department of Management.” They notify county sheriffs who call out ground Search and Rescue and/or Mountain Rescue teams skilled in high altitude techniques. “We may need five to ten people or up to 100.” Normally, volunteers from various agencies respond. “We might get ten Explorer Search and Rescue high schoolers or we might request military helicopters depending on need,” he explains.

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SAR Cabin Construction in October 2017 by Fred Hammerquist

No matter who comes, he’s frustrated that he cannot offer a base. “We want volunteers centrally located instead of spread out at whatever spot might be available, such as the distant Ohannapecosh station.” When open, the cabin “bunkhouse” will house multiple people (albeit some camping on the floor). Hergert stresses, “We couldn’t make this cabin happen without the WNPF.”

“Over the years as we’re called in,” says Rick Lorenz, Mountain Rescue volunteer since 1987, “an issue has been where to stay when on a mission” adding, “at times 20-30 of us squeeze into a small building at Longmire. It would be really useful to have a regular place to stay.”

Indeed. Seeking, treating and removing victims who suffered massive injuries or died takes a huge physical and mental toll on searchers. It demands teamwork, communication skills and calm demeanors to gain the victim’s trust. Extricating victims to safety might mean transporting a person on a single wheel litter over rocky terrain, clinging to ropes on steep hillsides while passing down the injured individual or harnessing a victim for a lift to a hovering helicopter.

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SAR Cabin Interior Construction, October 2017, by Fred Hammerquist

For volunteers, the explorations and rescues pose risks but the rewards of helping others make it all worthwhile. As longtime SAR volunteer Bree Loewen writes in her 2017 book, Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue (Mountaineers), “Rescue missions are not actually work, not a career: money, power, and prestige mean nothing out here…It’s not a vocation, it’s an avocation.”

So, from all of us who might someday need a rescue of friends, family or ourselves, we heartily thank every search and rescue volunteer. WNPF is thrilled to fund a haven for those who have give so much.

The office opening of the Search and Rescue cabin is yet to be determined, but we hope to announce its completion in the Fall of 2018.