1:53 AM: Bzzzzzzzt. Bzzzzzzzt. Bzzzzzzzt. I open my eyes and my girlfriend rolls over and groans next to me. I look down at my phone and squint–Joe’s texting me. Joe only texts me this late when it’s a callout. I open his message–It reads:
ATTN: We have been called out for a search in Baxter State Park.
Missing 24 y/o male, last seen on Hamlin Ridge, Mt. Katahdin.
Three other members in his party have been located.
Meet at 0730 in the Abol Pit Parking Area.
Let me know if you will be responding.
I text back “Copy, responding.” I roll out of bed and stumble across my room to the closet. I fumble around for my headlamp and sort through my 24 hour pack. Bivvy, thermarest, emergency stove, layers for top, layers for bottom, gloves and hats, three headlamps, medical kit, harness and personal technical gear, helmet, goggles, search kit, crampons, snowshoes. Oh, and food. Lots of snickers, two MREs, a thermos of hot soup leftover from dinner. Ready to go. I set an alarm for 4 AM and roll back into bed. The girlfriend is not pleased.
4:22 AM: Paul pulls into the park and ride, I hand him a coffee from Dunkin’ Doughnuts and load my gear into his car. We pull onto the highway and point the hood north.
This is all to familiar to me–last Saturday I was doing the exact same drill for training. Only this time it’s for real. We pound north until we see Katahdin and slow only slightly as we move from asphalt to gravel to snow for a road covering.
7:53 AM: Abol Pit is cold at this hour. The thermometer says it’s 13 degrees out. Eight of us pile onto the SAR personnel sled and roar out of the parking area. The caravan of rangers towing us and our gear is accompanied by two Maine Wardens. The wind whistles around us as we hurtle deep into Baxter State Park; it feels similar to the way it felt last weekend when we were here training; this time we’re going faster and the air whipping past my face is colder. We reach Roaring Brook Campground and unload our gear.
Above us another rescue team is already searching. There are four members from MDISAR and four more from Mahoosic Mountain Rescue searching above us on the mountain now. Several more from those teams are resting at the Roaring Brook Campground after the late night rescuing the three members of the party the night before. As a relatively new member, I remember this being one of my first really big searches; handshakes are given and received by leaders from each team and faces are grim. We get a briefing from park rangers and learn that the missing individual has been through a minimal survival ROTC course and has sufficient clothing for a day hike, but little or no overnight gear. That’s not good for an overnight storm on the upper slopes of Katahdin.
Three minutes after our briefing, we’re heading up the Helon Taylor trail, notably one of the steeper ways to ascend Katahdin. Luckily for us, for the most part the trail is broken in by members of MDI and Mahoosic. After an hour of snowshoeing uphill, we take a five minute break. Sun glistens off of Joe’s bald head; it’s about twenty-five degrees out but with all of our winter gear and some light rescue gear, going up this slope is no easy task. We put away our water bottles and Snickers bars and continue upwards. If you’re curious what winter on Katahdin is like, watch the clip below.
9:22 AM: My legs are starting to really wake up now; the snowshoeing is somewhat different from the “normal” gym workouts I do day-to-day. Not bad, just different; the calfs feel worked, the thighs are stretching out strangely. My lungs are now adjusted to the cold mountain air and the team’s moving in a rhythm. After an hour of tramping, the radio crackles to life:
“This is Mahoosic Ridge team, we have audible contact with an individual below us on the Eastern slope; Mahoosic Gully, do you copy this?”
“This is Mahoosic Gully, we do copy; we have not yet made that contact. Again, negative on the contact.”
“Copy that, continue up the gully, and we’ll let you know as the situation develops.”
“Copy that, Gully team clear.”
“Ridge team clear.”
We’ve stopped now, all of us straining to hear the communications through radio static and layers of hats. We continue up to the top of a small knoll that is mostly tree-less; then we drop packs, put on belay jackets, and hurry up and wait, tensely straining for more information over the radio. We call in to Roaring Brook and let them know that we’re on standby at our present location, estimating that we’re about forty-five minutes of hiking from the ridge team. They acknowledge that, then everyone anxiously waits for more news over the radios.
Paul pulls out a pair of binoculars and we scan the trees up above, focusing on the area below the ridge line. Mark, one of the rangers and a technical specialist for our team, pulls out another pair and we pass around the glasses, searching, scanning. Walter makes several passes, scanning down from the top, back and forth; then he stops, pausing–He says out loud, “Got something. Four jackets, two red. Must be Mahoosic.” Mark take his set of binoculars back and they exchange a couple more comments about the upper team.
9:34 AM: “Mahoosic Gully to Mahoosic Ridge.” The silence is broken by another radio communication.
“Go ahead Gully team.”
“Copy that, we’ve identified that same voice, we’re closing in on it as well.”
“Copy that, we’re working towards it now too.”
We watch from below as the two teams search for the missing hiker. The skies have cleared and the possibility of a helicopter rescue is looking better and better. We are told to maintain our position and that a rescue litter will be carried up to us as a staging area.
10:03 AM: “Mahoosic Gully to Roaring Brook, we have made contact with the missing party and are currently assessing the medical needs. Please prepare for a 10-21.”
The decision is made to make contact via phone to maintain privacy of the patient (What we call a 10-21). In the following five to ten minutes, the ridge team reaches the patient and the patient is stabilized. Radio communication goes back and forth and moments later we can hear the rotating blades of a chopper flying in from the air national guard. We see a blackhawk fly overhead and begin to work its way up the gully. Through binoculars, we are able to see an army medic lowered with a basket. The chopper buzzes off in a stand-by mode while the medic and rescue teams prepare a pick-up site and move the patient, in a litter, to that site. By 10:20, the chopper is back, the rescuers in place, and the medic is hoisted, along with the patient, to safety in the chopper. As the blackhawk thundered off, the pilot dipped his rotors to us overhead.
10:40 AM: We begin to head back down the trail; part-way up we meet up with another member of Mahoosic that was carrying up the litter. Together we hike down with her and back to Roaring Brook. We stage there, repack the rescue sleds and await the other two teams from above. At around noon, all of the rescuers are back at Roaring Brook. We have a short debriefing before climbing back on board the snowmobiles. At around 2:00 PM we roll out of the parking lot, knowing it’ll be a five hour journey home. But at the end of the day, we were an essential part of a system that made sure a fellow hiker made it home safely. Without our presence, the probability is that resources on the mountain would have been spread thinner and the initial contact never would have been made; it’s entirely possible that without all three volunteer teams, the BSP rangers, and the Warden Service personnel that worked on this rescue that hiker might not have had such a fortunate outcome. And thats what keeps us coming back for more. That’s why every month we set aside days to train with each other. Being part of that team that saves lives in the mountains is what drives members of WRT to do what we do.