SEATTLE — As the climbing season gets underway on Mount Rainier, a specialized rescue team has been training to be ready when things go wrong on the 14,411-foot peak.
Last year, nearly 11,000 people tried to scale Washington state's highest mountain, mostly between May and September. Less than 60 percent of them complete the arduous but popular climb to the summit of the glaciated volcano.
Sometimes the climbers get in trouble, slipping on icy slopes, falling into crevasses, getting lost or becoming ill at higher elevations. That's when rescuers from the U.S. Army Reserve, U.S. Air Force and National Park Service are on hand to airlift them to safety.
For high-altitude missions where heavy lifting and muscle are required, park officials rely on the Army's twin-engine, tandem rotor Chinook helicopters and the Army Reserve soldiers who have been volunteering search and rescue services in a longstanding partnership with the park.
Recently, members of the three units trained alongside each other. They ran through a full rescue scenario, planning out and practicing the techniques and steps to safely extract an injured person off the peak. The training involved Chinook pilots and crew, tactical rescue specialists known as "pararescuemen" and park climbing rangers.
"We're developing all our tactics and techniques so when we do have to go in, we have trained to know exactly what each other is going to do," said Sgt.Dean Crisswell, 34, a pararescueman from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, who took part in the training.
An Army Reserve Boeing CH-47F Chinook helicopter approaches two Air Force pararescue specialists anchored in the snow about 9,000 feet above sea level at Mount Rainier in Washington state on May 15 during a search and rescue training mission.
Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP
Pilots flying the Army's newest helicopter, the Chinook CH-47F, hovered in the sky as Crisswell was lowered on a hoist through the opening in the belly of the aircraft. Once on the mountain, he, park rangers and others attached a litter to the hoist, which was then raised to the helicopter, said Crisswell, who has participated in missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Mount Rainier rescuers typically train several days in the spring at the start of the climbing season. They'll fly an average of five to 10 missions using the Chinook helicopters each year, said Glenn Kessler, aviation manager with Mount Rainier National Park.
"Everything is choreographed," Kessler said.
So far this year, there hasn't been a rescue involving the Chinook helicopters.
"They provide the power and ability to get in with ships (aircraft), we generally do the search and rescue," Kessler said of the Army Reserve. The pilots, engineers and crew are part of the reserve's Bravo Company, 1st of the 214th General Support Aviation Battalion out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
About two years ago, Air Force pararescuemen, rather than park rangers, began doing the hoisting because they're specifically trained in rescues from aircraft, Kessler said.
The partnership benefits are mutual, Kessler and others said. Park officials have access to the military units, and the soldiers and airmen get real-life training to stay sharp.
"High-altitude training like this translates to high-altitude combat or humanitarian missions in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan," said Capt. Alan Moss, spokesman for the 11th Theater Aviation Command. "Any time they operate that aircraft, they're training."
Park rangers rely on commercial helicopters for many search and rescues, but the Chinook CH-47 helicopters are the aircraft of choice for higher-elevation missions where they need power.