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Q&A
   
Mount Hood Rescuer
Steve Rollins

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"I knew the chances of survival were slim."

 
The Hero of Mount Hood

How an IT guy became a search-and-rescue superstar during last spring's high-visibility, helicopter-smashing climbing disaster.

In his office at Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon, you'd be hard pressed to pin 27-year-old Steve Rollins for an outdoorsman. Thin and bespectacled, the computer-security specialist hardly seems the type to dangle free from helicopters, risking life and limb on a mountain rescue.

But for the past five years, Rollins has risen steadily through the ranks of Portland Mountain Rescue. That volunteer high-angle rescue organization arrived on scene just hours after this past spring's climbing accident on Mount Hood (see "The Slipping Point" in the September 2002 Adventure—read excerpt).

Since joining the team in 1997, Rollins has consistently been its most active member. Out of the team's 13 rescues a year, Rollins makes about 10. Last year, he was promoted to team leader.

When we caught up with Rollins, we asked him what it's like to save lives, and what he's learned from past rescues.

—Cliff Ransom

How do you fit your rescue life into your everyday life?
 

It's not always easy. You work all day, then go home to have dinner and then your pager goes off. In two seconds, your world turns upside down. An hour later you're up on a mountain in the dark in a blizzard looking for some lost guy.

Usually I'm about an hour into a search like that and I have to shake my head and think, Two hours ago I was going to be having dinner with my girlfriend and now I'm in the middle of the backcountry and it's dark and I'm looking for somebody. It just spins you for a loop.

 
How many of those dark nights have happy endings?
 

Well, I think there are degrees of happy endings. PMR [Portland Mountain Rescue] does one to two body recoveries a year and then one or two searches where the person is never found. The rest of the time we find the people. Whether or not they are injured is another thing.

 
What was your first body recovery?
 

About three years ago, a basic climbing school class from Mazamas, a local climbing club, was out on its graduation climb and got caught in a huge avalanche on the West Crater Rim route of Hood. The slide must have begun at about 11,000 feet [3,353 meters] and continued down to 9,400 feet [2,865 meters].

At least three people were seriously hurt and one person was buried. I showed up right after the fatality had occurred, but even then, I knew the chances of survival were slim. We set up a probe line—a line of 10 to 20 people each with a long metal probe used to feel for buried objects in the snow—and we began pacing off the avalanche.

We probably found his body about two hours after the accident. I ended up digging him out of about four feet [1.2 meters] of snow.

 
What was going through your mind?
 

I was amazed by the trauma of the avalanche. He had a standard Petzl climbing helmet on, and so much snow had been forced through the vents that the helmet chin strap had cut into his neck. An 11 millimeter [0.43 inch] climbing rope was severed in half about 20 feet [6 meters] from his body.

My emotions were pretty mixed. I was proud to be there to help, but I was frustrated and angry because this was not an experienced climber. He could not go into the situation and evaluate the hazards and know the risks. He was making his first climb.

Looking at him, I had to keep telling myself, OK, this is a body but the person is not really there. It definitely struck me hard. You can't help but put yourself in that helpless position and recognize your own mortality.

 
How do you feel about the people you rescue?
 

Most of the time you feel really good, like you've done a good job and what you've accomplished is really worthwhile. Sometimes I grow a very close bond with the people I have rescued. Often victims will keep writing you e-mails and staying in touch. I still hear from a few every so often.

Then there are some people that are totally unappreciative. It's like they don't understand that you spend all your own money and all your own time just to go out and rescue them and they don't care. That can be kind of irritating but you still know you did a good thing.

The only victims I feel particularly frustrated with are the ones who didn't use any judgment whatsoever. Not "you made a dumb mistake and you need a rescue," but "you continued to make dumb mistake after dumb mistake."

 
Does any one example stand out?
 

There was this guy who tried to climb the north face of Mount Hood last August. August is a horrible time to try to climb Hood. That's when all the rockfall is coming down.

He set off in normal street hiking boots, jeans, and a daypack. He didn't have an ice axe, just a bowie knife. He had no ropes, helmet, or experience.

When the ice got really steep his solution was not to turn around but to take his bowie knife out and start cutting out steps. This guy didn't even know what crampons were. He made it to the summit, miraculously, but took a pretty nasty fall on the way down because he took the wrong gully off the mountain.

He fell 200 feet [61 meters] and landed in a crevasse then had to call us for rescue into the middle of this glacier peppered with crevasses. I mean, this was Darwinism at work.

 
How did the rescue on Mount Hood stack up against your 50 others?
 

May 30 was kind of a breakthrough experience for me as far as being a leader. When we had the Pave Hawk para-jumpers and flight crew spread all over the snow immediately after the crash, everyone's immediate thought was, Wow, I have to go assess the victims. I'm gonna do anything I can do to help.

But as the incident commander, I had to take a step back. I had to look at the whole situation. Is the helicopter going to blow up? We are right in an avalanche and icefall path. Does that matter? Does it make more sense to keep these guys put or, like combat rescue, do we pick them up and drag them to a safe location, then assess them.

Rescue is about problem solving and communication. First you have to select people you know can get the job done. You need to communicate the plan to everyone involved—the big picture and the individual tasks—and you need teams that can get it done effectively.

You have to manage the rescue as a whole and to see the bigger picture and to think one step ahead. I've led teams in the field before but never with a rescue that large and that complex. All that came together and synched right up on May 30.

 
Do you have any advice to keep the aspiring mountaineer from becoming a rescue candidate?
 

You have to take a sport like mountaineering very seriously. You just can't just go out and do really hard routes occasionally with no real knowledge. You really need to learn the systems and the equipment and the mountain as a whole.

The key components to safe climbing are good equipment, good experience, and good judgment. Make sure that whomever you are learning from, whether it's a guide service or a friend, has all of these things. That won't prevent 100 percent of accidents, but it can mitigate the ones that are avoidable.

Also each year, I read the American Alpine Club's Accidents in North American Mountaineering to see what kind of accidents are being made and what I can learn. Climbing can be very safe if you go into it knowing the risks, knowing your limits and acting accordingly.
 

Read more about Steve Rollins (see excerpt) in the September 2002 issue of Adventure.

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