If you take a fall on Mount Hood, odds are a team from Portland Mountain Rescue will be the first on the scene. The elite group has been performing high-risk rescues on Oregon's tallest and most-climbed mountain for decades. But the Clackamas County Sheriff's new plan, first reported by the Oregonian/OregonLive, could see that all changing.
Sheriff Craig Roberts came on OPB’s "Think Out Loud" to defend his decision, the first time he has spoken publicly since the controversial plan was announced.
The Clackamas County Sheriff’s department plans to end their relationship with a number of search-and-rescue organizations that currently operate within their jurisdiction, including Portland Mountain Rescue. Instead, Sheriff Roberts plans to form a new search-and-rescue team from scratch, one that will handle both extreme alpine rescues and more routine searches for people lost or injured in the forests surrounding Clackamas.
"I want to raise the bar, my goal is to create a standard across the board," Roberts said. Any delay in rescue can turn into a life-or-death situation, whether high on the mountain or in the woods, "We had 130 search and rescue missions, and ten of those were on Mount Hood. " It's the rescues that aren't on the mountain that worry him the most.
Roberts' decision comes after a court found the sheriff's office at fault for the 2017 death of a climber. When Portland Mountain Rescue arrived on the scene, climber John Thornton Jenkins was responsive, though he looked severely bruised. But a series of bungled 911 calls led to delays in the helicopter dispatch. Jenkins' heart stopped beating as he was airlifted into the helicopter.
That lawsuit prompted an inquiry into how the county handles search and rescue.
"We spoke with the Office of Emergency Management," Roberts said, "sat down, and it really highlighted some of the things we are doing that aren't in line with the rest of the state."
Roberts told "Think Out Loud" that they brought in an independent investigator to review the case, and looked at how two other county offices handle alpine rescues. Currently, independently-run rescue groups like Crag Rats and Portland Mountain Rescue are dispatched by the Sheriff’s office, which communicates with the National Guard to coordinate helicopters.
Roberts said the report determined that bringing all search-and-rescue operations under one roof will help ensure prompt responses by qualified individuals. Members of current search-and-rescue teams will be welcome to apply. But rescue groups, particularly those that work on Mount Hood, oppose the plan.
“Portland Mountain Rescue is certified by the Mountain Rescue Association,” Mark Morford, a rescue leader and spokesperson for Portland Mountain Rescue, told "Think Out Loud" Wednesday. “Mountain rescue units are really different from general Search and Rescue. We’re a highly skilled, specialized unit that works in extreme conditions and high elevations.&rdqu
Although members of Portland Mountain Rescue would be welcome to apply to the new team, Morford thinks that’s unlikely. “We’ve heard others say, 'gosh, couldn’t you just go join the Clackamas County search-and-rescue and do your job there?'”
No, says Morford.
“We think performing in an expert environment, a dangerous environment like Mount Hood, requires a certain amount of esprit de corps, if you will. Asking a unit – an elite unit – like Portland Mountain Rescue to give that up, and give up the reputation they’ve built, is like asking the Marines to just go merge with the Army. That’s unthinkable.”
Morford says that Portland Mountain Rescue’s reputation as an elite organization lets them recruit climbers from all around the country.
“We’re really selective, very selective about who we accept,” Morford said, pointing out that new recruits go through two years of intensive, on-mountain training.
“Our members are unanimous that their strong preference is to stay with Portland Mountain Rescue, and all that they built there,” says Morford.
But that means that any team built by the Sheriff would be starting from scratch. Portland Mountain Rescue says they currently operate on $50,000 a year, but they estimate it would take upwards of $500,000 to start over with a state-run organization.
“Our members just don’t have the volunteer hours to participate in general search and rescue while also putting in the training time to be the specialists that they are,” Morford said.
Despite this opposition, Roberts maintains that creating a new search-and-rescue team is the best answer. He keeps coming back to one primary reason: the lawsuit following Thornton’s death.
"Think Out Loud" host David Miller pointed out that Portland Mountain Rescue was not found liable in the lawsuit, and indeed was praised by both the Sheriff’s department and Thornton’s family. Given that, he asked, “What was wrong with Portland Mountain Rescue, for example, that made you say we should get rid of [them] as an independent organization?”
Roberts replied that there is nothing wrong with the group, precisely. But during the litigation, the Sheriff’s office was asked questions about their recruiting process.
“What kind of trainings do these people have? What kind of policies do you have? What is your hiring process? And really, in many ways, we’ve been absent in those areas,” Roberts said. Right now, the county is responsible for dispatching the groups, but has no say in hiring them.
Portland Mountain Rescue put out a proposal that would give Clackamas County more control over their hiring process, training, and personnel policies, while still maintaining their independence and status as an elite alpine rescue group. But so far, Roberts hasn’t budged.
This lawsuit, Roberts said, opened the door for other lawsuits about search and rescue across the country.
“I’m always open to try and find compromise. I think that’s what life’s about a lot of times. But I want to bring it back to one point, and this is a big one,” said Roberts. "When the lawsuit comes, the lawsuit is coming against me.”