SNOHOMISH — A hiker who slipped on a log and hurt his shoulder. A trail runner who tumbled 100 feet down a hillside. A climber who suffered head and spinal injuries.
Danger in the outdoors can befall even the most experienced.
With a global pandemic driving people outside, it’s been a busy year for search and rescue crews. By Labor Day weekend, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office responded to 330 calls for people who were lost, injured or killed in the wilderness, as well as those who have been reported missing in cities and suburbs. That’s up from about 280 calls last year, and the 200 calls or so in the years prior.
By itself, the sheriff’s search and rescue unit would be overwhelmed. It’s thanks to the 300-plus volunteers with Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue that many missions don’t result in worse outcomes. They bring with them years — sometimes decades — of experience in niche technical rescue skills, including mountain climbing, tracking, piloting, four-wheeling and more. Food trucks, peer-to-peer support and data entry also play a role in operations.
Courtney Cox, whose story was highlighted in a fundraising newsletter, is just one of several people who were helped this year.
On Oct. 29, she went on a trail run with her boyfriend. She had been hiking in the mountains for years. She packed adequately, she thought. Yet it wasn’t enough.
They took a detour, following someone else’s foot path and ended up on a forest road going the wrong direction. Then they bushwhacked for 3,000 feet, and encountered a 10-foot avalanche chute.
As Cox made her way across, she grabbed a rock covered in moss. She slipped. “Time slowed when she immediately knew she was going to fall,” the newsletter says.
“She then fell onto her stomach and began somersaulting down a 100 foot drop. She hit a log, her leg flipped over, and her head hit a rock. Everything went black for three seconds and all she could think was ‘I’m dead.’”
But she didn’t die. Instead, the sheriff’s office and volunteers launched a nearly 24-hour rescue operation.
Using coordinates given by her boyfriend and with Cox’s flashlight visible from above, the sheriff’s rescue helicopter SnoHawk 10 found her, but tall trees made immediate help impossible.
“We found her pretty quickly, but that is when things started to get more complicated,” said Yana Radenska, a helicopter rescue technician who assisted in the rescue.
Radenska and flight medic Brian Schleicher were lowered by helicopter into a clearing about 850 feet away and hiked the rugged, rocky terrain to the injured patient. Upon arrival, Schleicher began to care for the woman — and did so for the next 20 hours.
Wind, rain and sleet bombarded the group as they waited for more help to arrive.
Meanwhile, teams from Everett Mountain Rescue and county search-and-rescue volunteers charted a course to extract the woman, preparing a cache of gear and planning to navigate the daunting terrain.
First, rescuers rigged gear to lower the woman on a stretcher about 80 feet to a safe location before raising her some 200 feet out of a stream bed.
Then, in three intervals of about 200 feet each, the woman was lowered to flat terrain, where a new team of volunteer rescuers from Snohomish, King, Skagit and Pierce counties carried her to a location for retrieval by SnoHawk 10.
Cox was brought to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett for further care.
It’s an ending that could have been far worse.
Heidi McKeon assumed her role as president just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. She is the first woman president of the operation, and the first to come from the organization’s operations support unit.
“This has been a year quite unlike others,” said her husband, John McKeon, who is also a volunteer and a member of the philanthropy board.
COVID-19 has made funds scarcer to come by, and stringent orders have resulted in less training for core competencies and skills, both for new volunteers and for old volunteers trying to keep their certification up to date. Meetings have taken place over video chat. And some volunteers have abstained from going out into the field, due to concerns that they’d be susceptible to contracting the coronavirus.
So far, the volunteers have mitigated the damage and were able to respond to all of the search and rescue calls during the busy summer. But now, with one more fundraising push before the end of the year, they hope to plan for the future.
The funds that are raised typically go toward maintaining facilities and equipment, such as vehicles, ropes for rigging and radios. Annually, maintenance costs are a minimum of about $50,000, John said.
The McKeons weren’t always involved in search and rescue. They didn’t even know there was such a group until their son and two of his friends were trapped overnight on Three Fingers Mountain in 2008. It was August, but it was cold with rain, snow and hail. The teenagers were becoming hypothermic. John recalled going to the trailhead, without the proper gear for the wilderness and suffering from a bad knee, with the expectation that he’d have to go up to find the teenagers himself.
“If you know nothing, your obvious expectation as a parent, as a father — well, it’s my son, I’m going to have to go out there,” he said.
Thankfully, sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, a longtime member of the search and rescue team who has since retired, was there to stop them. He said a group of volunteers called the hasty team were already halfway up the mountain. Unlike John, they did have the right equipment, including radios, headlamps, ice axes and crampons. Wikstrom told the worried father to stay back, for fear that he would become another search and rescue mission.
The hasty team made contact with the boys at daybreak, and put them in tents and dry clothes. A helicopter later arrived to extract them.
The McKeons call it the best worst day of their lives.
Ever since, Heidi and John McKeon have been involved with the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue. Many other volunteers have had similar experiences, John said — life changing moments in the wilderness — that have led them to help others.
“An experience like that, you don’t forget,” said John McKeon, who to this day gets choked up telling the story about his son and friends. “We feel like we have that debt that can never be repaid.”
Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @zachariahtb.
How to help
Donations can be made either online or through mail. Or contributions can be made by selecting Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue and shopping through Amazon Smile, at no additional cost. People can also volunteer, whether it’s going out into the field, or playing a more supportive role.
Snohomish County Volunteer Search & Rescue, 5506 Old Machias Rd, Snohomish, WA 98290
425-388-3328 (non-emergency number)