Dispelling search and rescue misconceptions

Some misconceptions about searches and rescues from those who’ve searched and those who’ve been rescued.

MISCONCEPTION: Rescuers are putting themselves in grave harm to save people.

REALITY: “It seems like that sometimes, and it is an elevated level risk compared to staying at home on the couch,” said longtime Mount Rainier rescue ranger Stefan Lofgren. But he says rescuers are highly trained, skilled and typically conservative. The person they’re looking for “might be right around the corner, but if they don’t think it’s safe, they aren’t going.”

MISCONCEPTION: Rescuers can search in any conditions.

REALITY: “It’s a common misconception that we have the technology to do that,” said Chuck Young, Rainier’s chief ranger. “I think people underestimate how large a role weather plays. They need to be prepared because it could be days or maybe a week before we can search.” Each individual searcher, most of whom are volunteers, can turn around at their own discretion.

MISCONCEPTION: The prepared don’t get lost or die on the mountain.

REALITY: Lacey mountaineer Jo Johnson has spent years exploring Mount Rainier’s slopes and was prepared when she and her boyfriend, Jim Dickman, got lost in a blizzard last month. She and rangers credit their preparedness for their survival. Her friend Robert Plankers of Olympia was prepared with topnotch gear in 2011 but still suffered hypothermia and later fell to his death. “If the mountain wants to take you, it will,” Johnson said.

Young says luck can be a pivotal factor in survival.

MISCONCEPTION: Rangers can stop whomever they like from climbing.

REALITY: Only law enforcement rangers have the authority to take visitors into custody. The park has the authority to prevent solo climbers from attempting to summit, Lofgren said. That decision is made only after an assessment of the climber’s ability and experience.

Climbing rangers consider one of their primary jobs to be educating climbers so they can make good decisions. “You need to be able to make the decision and not rely on any of our folks,” Young said. “It is (the climbers’) responsibility to be educated and trained before they go out there. Our job is not to tell people to stay off.”

Craig Hill, craig.hill@thenewstribune.com