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  • by Chris Stewart

Mountaineers to the Rescue

Like the Minutemen of America's Revolutionary War, they're ready to go at a moment's notice. Whenever the call from the North Conway Rescue Squad, the Fish and Game Department or the Appalachian Mountain Club comes in, they drop everything, gather their climbing gear and head for the scene of the accident.

Members of the Mountain Rescue Service volunteer their time and unique skills to rescue stranded climbers in the White Mountains, and in the past few years they've been called upon more and more to do what no one else can. Eighteen times in 1980 the call went out and eighteen times the team responded. "A lot of the time," explained Team Leader Bill Kane, "our rescues are simple and quick. We'll pull someone off Whitehorse or Cathedral Ledge when they're hung up or benighted. Winter time operations, however, are much more difficult and may last all night."

Mountain Rescue Service, the only group of its kind on the East Coast, plays a special role not only in the Mount Washington Valley but throughout the mountains. While the Fish and Game Department supervises rescue operations in the state, they lack the trained manpower to conduct technical climbing rescue. Instead, they rely on MRS. "The Fish and Game Department makes the distinction between what is a 'technical' and 'non-technical' rescue," said Team Leader Joe Lentini. "The minute a climbing rope become necessary they'll call us, but they never call us unless it's necessary."

Formed eight years ago, and incorporated as a non-profit group in 1974, Mountain Rescue Service began as a loosely-knit collection of climbers dedicated to helping those in trouble on the cliffs. Over the years, things have changed. While their goal remains the same, MRS has turned into a highly organized and trained team. "We started out meeting a couple of times a year," recalled Rick Wilcox, MRS's president. "If a guy got hurt, we'd go out to get him as fast as we could with only an hour's lead (warning) time. We're much more organized now."

Today, most team members are professionals - experienced climbers and instructors from Eastern Mountain Sports, International Mountain Equipment, and Mt. Washington Valley Mountain Guides. All team members know what to do in case of an accident. As Captain Fud Chinnock of the North Conway Rescue Squad commented, "When we go to a rescue on Whitehorse or Cathedral it's a joint operation . . . we depend on their expertise for the actual climbing work."

Lately MRS's reputation as a skilled and efficient rescue team has meant that it receives calls for assistance even when accidents don't require "technical" skills. "Strictly speaking," Wilcox said, "We're a rescue team to assist other rescue teams. But generally speaking, we're the strongest group for any mountain rescue because we have the experience, the physical and mental strength, and the teamwork to be effective." Lentini put it in a different way: "This is the best mountain rescue squad in the country without question."

Although no rescue can be described as "typical" or "routine," Bill Kane pointed out that team members followed a pre-set system of action when a call for help came in. "The AMC, the Fish and Game, or the North Conway Rescue Squad usually notify us if we're needed on a rescue," Kane noted. "We try to learn as much as possible about the accident victim so that we'll know what equipment and personnel to bring on the rescue." Particularly in winter rescues, there's always the chance that team members might lug too much unnecessary and heavy extra gear, an action which slows both the time it takes to reach the victim and to carry him or her out to safety. Surplus ropes, ice axes, ice screws, and hammers quickly mount up to an added 20-plus pound load.

Once MRS team members determine what gear and how many members are needed, they make the necessary telephone calls rounding up the squad. This usually means calling EMS, IME, and The Mount Washington Valley Mountain Guides, since most team members work for one of these organizations. Each team member keeps a stash of the necessary mountaineering gear stored at work or at home for quick use. "We always make certain that someone collects extra batteries and cookies, too,"Kane added. "Headlamps and hikers use a lot of energy."

When the team reaches the victim of a climbing accident they know -- from experience and practice -- what needs to be done. "We used to have a cavalier attitude, and worried mostly about getting the victim out safely," Kane noted. "Now we've been trained in extensive first aid and emergency medicine as well." An Emergency Medical Technician Instructor himself, Kane explained that all MRS members had learned emergency medicine and first aid techniques from Frank Hubbell, an EMT Instructor and co-director of Conway's SOLO school. "Generally, we're prepared to deal with most of the problems we find," Kane continued, "like soft tissue damage, fractures, hypothermia, shock, and cold weather dangers like frostbite.

"We give first importance to recognizing and treating an injury," Kane added, "and I know this has paid off in several rescues." As an example, Kane credited team member Mike Hartrich and Misha Kirk for giving critical first aid to two climbers who were felled by an avalanche in King Ravine last Easter.

Despite the improved organization and operation of MRS over the past few years, several team members expressed serious concerns for the team's future, concerns based on recent trends in mountaineering. In a nutshell, more inexperienced climbers are taking more unnecessary and dangerous risks. This rise in the number of foolhardy neophyte climbers creates a corresponding increase in the number of accidents. This, in turn, means that MRS members -- all of whom work without pay -- are devoting more and more of their time to rescue work.

Lentini believes that an explanation for this rests, in part, in human nature. "The more available a rescue squad, the more likely the rescue," he said. "Yosemite National Park is a classic example of this. People tend to take greater risks when they know they'll be rescued if they get into trouble while climbing." Lentini added that the rising popularity of winter climbing and hiking has also played a part in the burgeoning accident rate. "Perhaps because it's technically much easier to ice climb than to rock climb, people get themselves into trouble much easier in the winter," he commented. "And if you get hurt during the winter, there's a more pressing need for quick rescue action." Climber Rick Fleming echoed Lentini's observations. "There are a lot more things that can go wrong in ice climbing," Fleming noted, "particularly for an inexperienced climber. Ice conditions vary, the ice itself is less dependable than rock, and it offers less protection for the climber, It's physically easier to go higher -- to climb beyond your abilities -- on ice."

No matter what the exact cause for the rash of accidents, MRS members have suggested several remedies, not only to help the team continue its work, but to reduce the number of mountaineering mishaps. One suggestion focuses on improving the skills of those who climb: With more training, there would be less accidents. "The best way to curtail accidents is to improve the climber's awareness of what he or she is getting into," Lentini said. "People need to know what they're getting into before they go out and climb." To back up this point, Lentini referred to the American Alpine Journal. "They compile a record of mountaineering accidents," he continues, "and you'd be hard pressed to find even 5% that are caused by objective danger -- avalanches, bad rock, bolts of lightning, and the like. Almost all are caused by pilot error."

If more new climbers took lessons, Lentini is convinced that there would be fewer accidents. "Each of the climbing schools in the Valley instills a certain amount of common sense and technical skill in its students," he added. "To the best of my knowledge, none of the climbing students from EMS, IME, or MWVMG have ever had to be rescued."

In the meantime, MRS is looking to other forms of relief. In Europe, where a system of professional paid rescue teams supervises all mountain accidents, the model for one possible solution exists. "In the Alps in the old days, mountain guides were responsible for the rescues," Wilcox explained. "If the guides refused to go up, there wouldn't be a rescue. But they had to go up because that was the ethic." Over time, however, the burden grew too heavy, and the system changed. Now all climbers pay rescue insurance -- a fee of roughly $12 -- before they're permitted to tackle the slopes. This fee finances teams of professional rescuers who carried out more than 3,500 sorties in 1980 alone. The cost of one of these helicopter assisted rescue averages about $2,000, with bills as high as $10,000. The point Wilcox stressed, however, was that the Alpine guides couldn't' handle the traffic in accidents, by themselves, and because of this they had to find another way to deal with stranded climbers.

Whether a similar solution -- an insurance fee for climbers -- will be instituted here remains to be seen, but for the present time, MRS is holding its own. "There are some draw-backs," Lentini said. "We're no longer covered by Workmen's Compensation, there's no pay for the work, and -- as a matter of fact -- it may cost a team member to participate; you can't teach when your'e out on a rescue or burnt out from an all-night litter carry. But no one's kicking because it's work that has got to be done. You ask yourself the question: 'If I don't do it, who will?' Climbers take care of their own."

Wilcox agreed with many of Lentini's comments and added a few of his own. "Being on the rescue service is a way for us to provide a service to the community and to do a job no one else does," he remarked. "We'll do whatever's reasonalbe to get someone off the mountian without risking too much danger ourselves, and we'll continue to do it as long as we can handle it. I climb and it's a good feeling to know that if I got into trouble the MRS would be there to help."

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