Nuclear engineer turns rescue volunteer

BREMERTON — Mountain rescues are fraught with experiences most people try to avoid: cold, pain, exhaustion, danger, failure.

Olympic Mountain Rescue volunteer Kevin Koski has gained a reputation for overcoming all of it. In recent headline-grabbing rescues, the Bremerton resident hauled hypothermic snowboarders off Mount Rainier and tracked down an elderly hiker who had been lost on a Mount Baker cliffside.

He was recognized as a 2013 West Sound Hero by the American Red Cross for his commitment to OMR, an all-volunteer organization that often rouses its rescuers from bed and sends them up mountains for 16 hour days spent searching for the missing and injured.

Koski, a nuclear engineer at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, has served on more than 30 missions since joining OMR five years ago.

“He’s often the first one up there,” said OMR president John Myers, who counts on both Koski’s mountaineering skills and his gregarious personality to give tough missions a boost.

OMR was founded in 1957 by a group of Bremerton mountaineers who had banded together to rescue a young climber injured in the Olympic Mountains.

“These climbers immediately discovered that rescue was a totally different experience than nice, uneventful mountaineering,” wrote Keith Spencer in his history of OMR. “They had neither training nor equipment; they did have big problems.”

OMR’s members helped found Olympic College’s mountaineering course, which has acted as a feeder for well-trained OMR volunteers for decades.

OMR remains in Bremerton, but Myers estimates “about 99 percent” of its missions are outside Kitsap County.

There are eight other volunteer mountain rescue groups in the state. Most are focused on the Cascades. OMR is the only one dedicated to the Olympic Mountains. Increasingly, though, the group’s 35 members are called upon to assist on the east side of Puget Sound, where fewer Mount Rainier and North Cascades national park rescue rangers are active due to budget cuts.

Koski doesn’t mind the added workload.

“It’s kind of fun to crash through the bushes, exploring cliffs and theorizing about where (missing) people will go, and trying to find them,” he said.

Koski spent his youth camping, earning his Eagle Scout badge and “bagging peaks” throughout Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

His time studying at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York City made him ache for high altitude snow and rock. Upon graduation, he began looking for a place where he could both apply this nautical trade and feed his passion for climbing. Bremerton was the perfect fit a Navy town between two epic mountain ranges.

It didn’t take long for Koski to ingratiate himself with the town’s mountaineers. Once he’d proven his abilities, he got the call to join OMR.

“They strong-armed me,” he said, only half-joking.

While many of OMR’s members came up through OC’s mountaineering course, Koski is self-taught.

“I’m kind of a hawsepiper with mountaineering,” he said, using a nautical term for an officer who earned his rank through a non-traditional route.

The route was simple climbing. Koski has climbed 300 peaks, including Rainier five times.

Rescue mission leaders often put Koski at the front of a search, asking him to go fast and far from onset. That was the case last November on Rainier when he was called upon to cross-country ski through deep, wet snow in search of two young snowboarders.

Koski was part of a group that first spotted the teens.

“Their clothes were wet and they were pretty darn hypothermic,” he said. “Their faces were just ashen and pale.”

Koski and other rescuers spent an hour warming them up before leading them to safety.

One of Koski’s most memorable missions was on Mount Baker during the summer of 2012. He and OMR volunteer Peter Ozimek were called upon to search a steep old-growth forest for a 69-year-old Bellingham man who had been lost for three nights.

North Cascades rescue crews had “already burned through a lot of searchers and dog teams, and needed our help,” Koski said.

Koski almost didn’t believe it when he spotted the man, who had sought shelter in a small hillside cave.

“He was exhausted, and didn’t think he could go down or up (the hillside),” Koski said. “He really thought he had found his final resting place.”

Koski still stays in touch with the man by e-mail.

“He told us he couldn’t believe people were pushing through to find him,” he said. “That’s always going to be a good memory for me.”

Koski says he’s had plenty of missions that didn’t produce happy memories. The missions that turn up nothing or, at times, something much worse than nothing still have meaning for Koski.

“Even the missions where the person isn’t alive anymore, it feels good to try even just so their families know that somebody tried their hardest,” he said.

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