Mountain Rescue - Protecting Man from Nature

In the world of extreme recreation, there are few things more challenging than mountain climbing. Thousands of amateurs around the world test their strength and endurance against the unforgiving wilderness every year. Most of the time they are successful and return home safely, but a small percentage fall victim to accident, illness, or twist of fate. While these few can often depend on their fellow climbers for assistance, sometimes outside help is necessary. The world's mountain rescue teams save hundreds of stranded or injured persons a year. Yet most of these organizations are not professional, but are made up of volunteers who willingly put themselves at risk to help their fellow hikers.

In the 1920s, mountain climbing began to grow more popular in western Europe, particularly in the mountains of Germany and Austria. However, the chaos following World War I meant that many of the isolated cabins and hikers in remote areas were often subject to extreme weather or victimized by criminals. A group of men in Munich formed a volunteer police force known as Bergwacht to protect innocents, and they later expanded their role to include rescues that were unrelated to crimes. By 1923 there were branches of mountain rescue in Bavaria and Chiemgau as well. Around the same time, the Red Cross formed the Mountain Rescue Force, which was an international rescue organization group modeled on the German Bergwacht.

The death of mountaineer Delmar Fadden in 1938 while climbing Mount Rainier in Washington led a small group of American climbers to form a volunteer mountain rescue organization based on the Bergwacht. The new organization was called Seattle Mountain Rescue, and they directed at least fifteen separate rescue operations from 1952 to 1953. SMR currently averages thirty rescue missions a year across the northwestern United States and is the oldest active rescue association in the country. There are now over eighty volunteer mountain rescue organizations just in the United States, which typically operate under the direction of local law enforcement offices such as sheriffs. The US Parks service also directs professional wilderness rescue teams and helps to coordinate various volunteer rescue operations under the auspice of the Mountain Rescue Association.

Mountain rescue teams often work in some of the harshest weather conditions in the world. Teams are deployed on mountains, in caves, on ski slopes, in canyon rivers, and even stuck cable cars. Helicopters are frequently used to assist ground teams, and one rescue involved a helicopter evacuating injured climbers from an altitude of over seventeen thousand feet. Most teams also normally have at least one member trained in wilderness medical techniques, which is particularly important in situations involving injury to necks or spines resulting from a fall during climbing.

Because of technological improvements like cell phones or GPS positioning, mountaineering is safer than it has even been. But the increasing numbers of recreational climbers requires the continual growth of these volunteer organizations to supplement professional rescue operations.

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