INDEX — As Eldon Burrier dangled from the side of a mountain, his parachute lines caught on a rocky outcropping about the size of a dinner plate, Mike Loney made a call home.
Moments before, around 9 p.m. Monday, Loney was tapped to orchestrate a rescue strategy for the Snohomish County Search and Rescue volunteers — a team of largely anonymous life savers who must interrupt family, jobs and vacations at a moment’s notice.
In this rescue, which gained national attention, 52 volunteers answered the call. Some came from as far away as Seattle, Bellingham and the Olympic Peninsula. In small teams, 30 rescuers with head lamps zigzagged in the dark up the steep, rugged terrain toward the mountain’s 6,125-foot summit. Others set up a camp to support them.
Most were members of the Everett Mountain Rescue Unit, one of several all-volunteer units that make up the county’s Search and Rescue program.
When the rescue was over, the small army of volunteers had donated a combined 747 hours in rescuing the BASE jumper.
“I’m not overstating it: He owes his life to those mountain rescue volunteers,” said Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s officer who oversees search and rescue operations.
As luck would have it, Everett Mountain Rescue Unit members were gathered for a monthly meeting at their Snohomish headquarters when the call came in. The group had been discussing the 11 missions they undertook in the previous month.
Loney was told simply: “Don’t go home yet.”
Burrier used a cell phone to call 911. Loney driving east on U.S. 2 toward Mount Baring went through the possible rescue routes in his mind. He knew the landscape well and tried to picture where Burrier had got himself stuck.
Planning mountain rescues is a fluid mental exercise.
Based on initial cell phone reports provided by Burrier, a search helicopter scoured the terrain at about 3,000 feet. At that level on the steep cliffs of Baring, Loney knew he’d need his best rock climbers.
Later, the helicopter crew spotted Burrier swinging from his parachute harness at roughly 5,600 feet.
“The whiteboard in my mind had to be erased,” he said. “I had to start over.”
The new rescue plan would require climbers to get to the summit. Then they could lower themselves down a ways to reach Burrier with ropes from above.
Loney also worried about Burrier’s condition. Dangling in a harness can cause suspension trauma, in which blood pools in the immobilized legs and can deprive the brain of oxygen.
That concern grew Monday night when a team aboard the search and rescue helicopter determined it would be too dangerous to try to reach Burrier to hoist him up. Surveying the scene through night vision goggles, they feared several possibilities, including that downdraft from the helicopter rotors dislodging the snagged parachute.
Mountaineers now believe Burrier was able to touch down on a small ledge to keep his blood circulating in his legs.
By 4:30 a.m., a first group of climbers had reached the summit.
“They had to get eyes on the subject,” said Gary Yonaka, 69, a spry Snohomish resident who served as the field operations leader on the mission.
By 6:30 a.m., all 30 rescuers were atop.
They and Burrier were above the clouds.
Yonaka was relieved to realize Burrier was not seriously injured and would not need to be packed off the mountain. That, he said, could have required about 100 rescuers.
The rescue team descended to a lower peak with better access to Burrier and set out to rig up a rope system with pulleys. Their engineering and handiwork was checked and double-checked by a fresh set of eyes.
“We do it safe and slow,” said Jon Schwegler, who headed up the rigging team.
They secured the rigging around several trees before lowering a crew member about 150 feet. From there, another rope was dropped for Burrier to attach to his parachute harness.
Burrier was raised above the parachute and clipped into another harness before being hauled steadily to the top of the cliff.
From there, volunteer medics evaluated his condition. A search and rescue helicopter airlifted him off the summit and the mountaineers worked their way down to the base camp.
Wikstrom marvels at Burrier’s good fortune: the fact that his parachute cords held, that he was able to reach 911 by cell phone from the remote rock face and that the mountaineers were meeting when his call came in.
Officials reported Burrier told them Monday’s jump was his way of paying respects to a friend who was killed during a BASE jump last month from the same peak. BASE jumping involves parachuting from buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) and earth.
Aude-Marianne Bertucchi, a 32-year-old Bothell woman, died July 25 after her parachute failed to open properly during a jump from Mount Baring.
Many who helped recover Bertucchi’s body were on the mission to save Burrier, 45, of Lynnwood. At the time of his Baring mishap he was facing a charge of reckless endangerment for another BASE jump in May at Deception Pass Bridge, which connects Whidbey and Fidalgo islands. He was briefly jailed on that charge after being plucked from the mountain Tuesday.
Burrier was criticized by callers to radio talk shows and other commentators. Members of the search and rescue team wouldn’t criticize Burrier for getting himself in the precarious predicament.
“We don’t make any judgements about why they are in trouble,” said Oyvind Henningsen, a member of the Everett Mountaineer Rescue Unit.
Lt. Robert Palmer, who oversees the special operations division of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said he doesn’t know what the county would do without the skilled and highly trained volunteers who make up Search and Rescue.
“It really is, for a lot of people, a calling,” he said. “They want to be part of the solution.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com