To the Rescue!

Crag Rats respond to record number of outdoor emergencies

By Drew Myron

From left, longtime Crag Rats Roger Nelson, 79, Bernie Wells, 77, and Bill Pattison, 93, stand in front of the Crag Rat Hut in Pine Grove. Photo by Drew Myron

The Crag Rats, a group of certified rescue volunteers responding to crisis throughout the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, have reached a record number of 53 rescue missions in a single year—and the calendar is not yet closed.

“The Crag Rats have been around for 96 years, and this is the busiest year in our club history,” says Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg, staff physician at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital. He is also Hood River County’s public health officer and Crag Rats medical director.

Formed in 1926, the Crag Rats are the nation’s oldest search and rescue organization. Based in Hood River, the all-volunteer, nonprofit group conducts grueling rescues and heartbreaking recoveries in the wild and rugged terrain of the Columbia Gorge.

“I remember when we’d get just a few calls a year,” says Bernie Wells, 77, who lives in Pine Grove. “Last month, we had nine calls in one month.”

When just a teen, Bernie followed his father, Harold, into the Crag Rat ranks.

In the early days, the group averaged six rescue missions a year. Over time, missions jumped from 10 to 20 to 30 annually to now 50 and counting. Many are simple rescues that take a few hours or a day, while others are more complex missions that consume four to five days and nights.

The Crag Rats use a rope haul system to recover a body on Eliot Glacier on the northeastern slopes of Mount Hood. Photo courtesy of Dr. Christopher van Tilburg

What’s causing the increase?

The playground is crowded. More people are hiking, biking, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing, Christopher notes. Social media and technology may play a part, too. As more people broadcast their adventures, more people want to join the fun.

“There are just a lot of people enjoying the outdoors, and it’s easier now to call for help,” says Christopher, 56, who joined the Crag Rats in 2000 and goes on nearly every call. “Half the people we rescue are doing everything right. They break a leg, sprain an ankle or get lost.”

Rescues occur in deep forests, on ragged cliffs, in steep ravines, all over the mountain and in every season. One-third of the missions take place at night.

“Every mission is different,” Christopher says. “We’ve gone really, really deep in the Gorge, and the terrain is very remote. Some of the canyons are really rugged. We’re climbing over rock and scree and through poison ivy up to our chests. It can sometimes take three hours to go 1,000 vertical feet because it’s so rugged.”

A group of Crag Rats gather atop South Sister in 1931. Photo courtesy of the History Museum of Hood River County

The group of 100 volunteers is comprised of skilled climbers, skiers and mountaineers, all with a love for the outdoors and a passion to help.

The Crag Rats are often likened to volunteer firefighters, with an unpaid, around-the-clock commitment to saving lives. They live in Hood River, Wasco and Klickitat counties.

Many are doctors, ski patrollers and EMTs. Others are construction workers or insurance agents and teachers. All are skilled in cliff, crevasse and avalanche rescue, and accredited by the national Mountain Rescue Association.

On missions, members wear signature black-and-white checked shirts, just as the first Crag Rats did nearly 100 years ago.

“We’re a unit,” says Bill Pattison, 93, who grew up in the Hood River Valley and is the longest-serving member.

Early on, the group was comprised of Hood River Valley residents who would climb peaks together. One day, the group was called to help find a boy lost on Mount Hood.

When the boy was happily found, a reporter asked for the name of the group. The unofficial crew quickly responded with the ribbing one of the wives had given. She called them “rats” for leaving their families to explore the crags of Mount Hood. The Crag Rats name was born.

Longtime Crag Rats, from left, Bernie Wells, 77, Bill Pattison, 93, and Roger Nelson, 79, stand at the Crag Rat Hut in Pine Grove in their signature black-and-white shirts. Photo by Drew Myron

“We were a social club, and we’ve become more and more a search and rescue organization,” Bill says. “Instead of self-serving, we’re now more publicserving. These volunteers in their hearts are givers, not takers.”

The pressure on volunteers can be immense. Rescuers have families and jobs. They also carry the physical, mental and emotional toll of recovery missions.

Managing gear is a big task.

“We supply all our own rescue gear, clean it, pack, repair, replace,” Christopher says. “There’s a lot of work that goes into missions behind the scenes.”

Through the years, technology has changed the outdoor experience. Cellphones have become a boon to rescue operations, streamlining the process with instant information. Gear has improved, too. Everything is more high-tech, Bernie says.

“Early on, our gear was ice ax, crampons and a rope, and you took off,” he says. “It was all word-of-mouth, no cellphones. The gear now is more lightweight and stronger.”

The Crag Rats do not charge for searches and rescues. As a nonprofit, the group relies on donations to fund its efforts, as well as revenue from the Crag Rat Hut in Pine Grove. Perched on a hillside with views of Mount Hood and the lush valley below, the mountain lodge is a popular spot for weddings and special events.

Against the wrench of life and death is an easy, unexpected banter among the team.

“Humor is our biggest asset,” Bill says. “Humor bonds people. When times are bad, humor helps.”

Christopher agrees.

“We have a deep history and culture, and all of that begets great friendships,” he says. “It’s really rewarding. The people we rescue are incredibly thankful.”

To donate, volunteer or learn more, visit the Crag Rats website or contact the Crag Rats at PO Box 1159, Hood River, OR 97031.