A rescue as simple as getting Timmy from the bottom of a well can be a difficult operation, but it’s rarely that easy in Southeast Alaska.
In Juneau, Timmy can be lost in the forested, mountainous terrain that walls in Juneau on its landward side, trapped in an avalanche or stranded on the side of a cliff over a 100-meter drop. Then, it’s time to call someone a little more technically proficient than an extremely talented collie.
In Juneau’s case, that’s Juneau Mountain Rescue.
“We’re an organization that needs help with everything,” said Jackie Ebert, member of JMR’s board of directors and six-year veteran of the organization. “Overall, we do search and rescue, wilderness rescues, avalanches, high-angle or technical rescues and urban searches.”
Founded in 1982, JMR is an all-volunteer nonprofit, composed of those willing to go through a lengthy training process and deal with foul weather and rough terrain to rescue those that need saving.
“There’s a lot of Alaskan mentality about helping people,” said Pat Dryer, member of JMR’s board of directors and nine-year veteran of the organization. “Alaskans are pretty good at helping people.”
While the Alaska State Troopers have primacy over all searches in Alaska, sometimes they’ll look at a situation and decide JMR is best suited for the recovery effort. In that case, they’ll coordinate with JMR and support them while rescuers from JMR work to bring the lost home safely.
“AST does a lot of the investigative work,” Dryer said. “With cellphone technology, we’ve had a lot less true searches.”
Always on call, AST will let senior members of JMR know that their services may be required. From there, senior members will stand up the organization, activating everyone who can respond.
“We’re a little different than the fire department in that we’re not staffed 24/7,” said Dryer.
Train like you fight
Becoming a member of JMR starts with volunteering, said Ebert.
Anyone can volunteer, and JMR often has booths at outdoors events and local festivals, said Chief Petty Officer Bryan Jackson, a Coast Guardsman and the JMR’s outreach coordinator. This year, they’re sponsoring the Backcountry Film Festival as it comes to Juneau on Nov. 16.
“We don’t turn anyone anyway,” Jackson said. “If they want to volunteer, we’ll bring them on as a candidate.”
Once someone volunteers, Jackson said, they’ll go onto a roster and begin going through the training required to become an operational member of the team. Certified by the Mountain Rescue Association, JMR has strict guidelines on what members need to be trained to do before activating them operationally.
“We train Tuesday evenings followed up by a full Saturday of training,” Ebert said. “We have a checklist of skills and certain medical skills you have to have before you’re a full operational member.”
It takes about 12-18 months to get a candidate to an operational level, Ebert said. She said a fair amount of training also goes into working out of helicopters. JMR reveives training assistance from the Coast Guard and Army National Guard, as well as from local helicopter companies, who have all assisted in searches in the past.
Ebert said most members of the organization end up spending more than 200 hours each year on JMR business. Members in leadership roles will often end up spending closer to 400 hours. All told, the organization has logged nearly 4,000 volunteer hours this year.
In the Field
Searches and rescues vary wildly.
In some cases, rescuers may know exactly where someone is, but the person is trapped or injured. In others, people may have wandered off a trail and be uninjured but lost. People may also call in and tell the state troopers that someone is missing, but not know where or when they got lost.
“Sometimes we get a lot of information before a search, sometimes we get no information,” Jackson said.
Depending on the nature of the mission, rescuers will pack differently. All members keep a self-sustainment pack with them, enough to keep them and a victim sheltered, fed and hydrated for 24 hours.
“In wintertime, the packs get a lot heavier,” said Jackson.
Rescuers will also carry mission gear, which might vary from ropes to rescue gear to medical kit to food and water for extended operations. Many searches last six to 12 hours, Ebert said.
“If we have a known location and known problem, we may grab different gear than a wilderness search,” Ebert said.
Team members all have specialties, including things like medical care, technical rope work, search theory, and avalanche specialization.
Getting on the scoreboard
This year, Dryer said, there’s already been 19 rescues, including one last month at Mount Roberts. The average for the year is usually about 19, and there’s still three months to go.
Rescues tend to be split down the middle between independent tourists and Juneau locals, said Pete Boyd, a meteorologist and a five-year veteran of JMR. Cruise ship tourists rarely get lost, said Emily Nauman, an attorney for the Alaska state legislature and six-year veteran of JMR.
“People kinda go out no matter what. Especially hunting season,” Boyd said. “If they want to get out there, they’ll get out.”
JMR also helps out, assisting with major searches in central Alaska and elsewhere where their skill set may be an asset. Dryer, who is an avalanche specialist, said he’s gotten called out to Ketchikan 2-3 times to assist.
“We’re one of two places in the world that has urban avalanche terrain,” Dryer said.
JMR also sends members to technical conferences for rescuers and wilderness search specialists every year, to keep the organization state of the art. They also often field-test gear for outdoors companies, who will come to them with new equipment that they want assessed for its durability and practicality.
What should you know
JMR offered some safety tips.
-Check the weather. Be cautious of rain, snow, and high winds, as well as sunset.
-File a plan. Tell someone where you’re going
-Bring enough food, water, clothes, a head lamp, and extra batteries. -If you get lost
-Stop and think, take a minute. And don’t be afraid to call for help early. Don’t wait until the sun goes down.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.