After harrowing fall, a rescuer becomes the rescued

The microwave oven-sized chunk of rock gave way.

Then, Miles Mcdonough remembers falling.

The Seattle man, then 29, landed 70 feet below from where he’d been climbing on the north face of Mount Stuart in Chelan County.

He didn’t know it then, but in addition to visible cuts and bruises, he’d suffered a concussion, a broken shoulder, fractured ribs and a punctured lung.

His climbing buddy, Matt Hoffmann, 33, of Lynnwood, knew he couldn’t help his friend alone. He headed down the 9,415-foot mountain in search of help.

The fall happened around noon on Sept. 7. Mcdonough was at the hospital less than 24 hours later. He was in bad shape, but he was alive.

Both men have seen trouble in the mountains before — but from the other side.

The friends are volunteers with Everett Mountain Rescue. Snohomish County’s search-and-rescue helicopter played a key role in plucking the injured Mcdonough from the cliff face.

It was one of the most harrowing missions that Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom has ever seen. He works with Snohomish County Search &Rescue, a private nonprofit.

The impact of the fall tore off Mcdonough’s climbing pack of survival gear, including spare clothing, gloves, water, and first-aid kit. His climbing rope was mangled, but it kept him from plunging down the mountain.

Hoffmann lowered his own pack and emergency equipment to his friend. Then he headed off solo, without a rope.

“There weren’t many options,” Hoffmann said. “Miles needed the gear before I did, so my job was to get out before the gear was needed.”

It took nearly five hours to get down and find a cell phone to call 911.

The Chelan County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Navy started on a rescue plan. Wikstrom paged out Everett Mountain Rescue. It was possible they’d be needed to help save one of their own.

Several went to the trailhead to start climbing up to Mcdonough. They hoped to get to him and stabilize him in case a helicopter couldn’t reach him.

A Navy helicopter searched for Mcdonough. For the first few hours, he waved and shouted when the chopper flew near, though he knew the crews couldn’t hear him. He eventually ran out of energy. It grew dark. He knew he had to stay warm. There could be a lot more flyovers ahead.

At one point, the Navy helicopter crew picked up Hoffmann to help in the search using night-vision goggles. Around midnight, they spotted him.

Mcdonough wasn’t moving. From the sky, it looked like he was lying in a snowfield. The rescuers knew that Mcdonough, an experienced climber, wouldn’t lie in snow unless he was mentally compromised.

Then, the Navy helicopter had a mechanical problem and had to land.

Tensions were high, Wikstrom said. The crews knew their friend could be dead, and they may have to recover his body. They had to keep trying.

To reach Mcdonough at approximately 8,860 feet, it would be the highest elevation ever for a hoist-rescue mission for the sheriff’s helicopter, SnoHawk10, chief pilot Bill Quistorf said. The chopper recently received a grant-funded mechanical overhaul that made it lighter and more powerful. Without the upgrade, they never could have considered heading up so high on Mount Stuart.

Meanwhile, Mcdonough’s climbing friends from Everett Mountain Rescue were scrambling up the peak. Volunteers Sandeep Nain, Kevin Riddell and Jonah Manning estimate they started at the trailhead about 1 a.m.

Nain had climbed the mountain a few weeks before. He offered to lead the others.

“(Nain) had skin in the game with Miles on the mountain,” said Riddell, 40, of Everett. “He wasn’t going to sit around and wait.”

Because the accident happened so high up Mount Stuart, the team reached the summit before Nain was able to rappel down to the ledge to reach Mcdonough. Just then, SnoHawk10 appeared overhead.

The helicopter crew lowered a rescue harness and a radio. Nain helped Mcdonough clip in.

He was plucked from the mountain and flown to a waiting ambulance that whisked him to a Wenatchee hospital. He was hospitalized for five days. His mother flew in from Kansas.

Mcdonough’s doing better, but he’s not fully recovered, he said this week. He can’t climb yet. He expects to get back into rescue missions when he gets the doctor’s OK. He’s already helping the rescue group with administrative work.

Mcdonough wants to share his story so people can learn from his ordeal, he said. He and Hoffmann both have committed to always carrying emergency beacons with them when they go into backcountry. The devices can emit a distress signal and notify rescue crews of an exact location if a trip goes awry. That could have speeded rescue in this case.

Wikstrom credits Hoffmann for getting the “extraordinary” rescue under way. If Hoffmann had fallen during his risky solo descent, rescuers wouldn’t have known what happened until someone reported the two men overdue.

There were moments when they had to seriously question whether rescue was even possible, Wikstrom said. As the hours passed, the team tired. Somebody else could have been hurt. They had to be objective and not let their emotions take over, Wikstrom said.

Hoffmann and Mcdonough’s years of experience with mountaineering and rescue missions gave them the discipline to make the right decisions for survival, Wikstrom said.

Hoffmann downplayed his own role in the rescue, but his action’s likely saved Mcdonough’s life, Wikstrom said.

“He had to free climb and get out of there on his own with no equipment after giving his equipment to Miles,” Wikstrom said. “Had he fallen, which was certainly a possibility, the story could be just a ghastly one.”

Wikstrom nominated Hoffmann for a sheriff’s office Medal of Valor and commendations for others involved. They are to be honored at 6 p.m. Thursday at the sheriff’s office annual awards ceremony at Cavelero Mid High School in Everett.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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