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Search and Rescue Activities

Some years after the Maroon Bells accident, Pauline Ungnade (Herbert Ungnade's widow) donated funds to the club for search and rescue equipment, including a complete litter assembly. The Mountaineers set up a calling list for rescue activities and were sometimes called out by the Los Alamos Civil Defense organization. In 1972, after the accident on Blanca Peak and the fatality in Yosemite, on the initiative of Larry Campbell, Eiichi Fukushima, and Len Margolin, the club formally established the position of Search and Rescue Director, with Len Margolin as the first Director. In 1975 the Mountaineers rescue team consisted of 20 active rock and/or snow climbers, many with Advanced First Aid or Emergency Medical Technician training.

The club's search and rescue team contributed to numerous local searches, including a night-time search for a missing person in White Rock Canyon and a climbers' search for a lost hiker on Hermit Peak near Las Vegas. Eiichi Fukushima recalls that the club's team participated in a search for a downed airplane in Cimarron Canyon and found some live and some dead people. On a lighter note, Eiichi also participated in a search for some women who had become lost while hiking in the Pecos near the Santa Fe ski basin. Len Margolin was part of both the Cimarron Canyon search and the Santa Fe Ski Basin search. He recalls that Herb Kincey played a very important role in both of these episodes. Herb Kincey was a strong supporter of the Mountaineers' climbing school and also worked closely with the St. John's College search and rescue team.

Len said that "The Cimarron Canyon search started late on a winter afternoon in the middle of a blizzard. Larry Dauelsberg, Don Liska, Bob Mitchell and I set off on snow shoes through already deep snow; we had some cooking gear and sleeping bags, but no tent. The missing plane had a signal device (DF?) and we had some device to track the signal. The first evening we followed several signal tracks, but each ended on the steep cliffs on the west side of the canyon. Finally, we bivouacked for the night. I remember we all huddled under a waterproof tarp, trying to stay dry and conserve our communal warmth."

"The following day, we started out at first light and followed a third track, which also ended at the cliffs. At this point, we were getting frustrated, but when we radioed our lack of success to Herb at base camp, he got very excited. Herb had figured out what was happening, essentially that we were tracking signals reflected from the rock walls. This meant that the plane had to be on the east side of the canyon. Furthermore, having three tracks Herb was able to triangulate the probable source and sent us directly to the plane. The plane had had two couples on board. When we got there, the two women were still in the plane's back seat, with assorted broken bones but otherwise okay. The two men had survived the crash in better shape, but had left the plane looking for help and both were found later frozen to death." 

"The Santa Fe Ski Basin search started without us. Two women hikers had been out in the general area of Penitente Peak/Skyline Ridge; they had camping gear, but were several days overdue when the search began. The various Search and Rescue groups, including horsemen and dogs, found no trace of the women the first day. Then, Herb Kincey recognized a possible scenario: that the women had gotten disoriented and descended into the drainage of the Santa Fe reservoir rather than back to the ski area. Herb requested a group of mountaineers to work their way from Penitente Peak down into the drainage and then to follow it back to Santa Fe. Eiichi Fukushima, Ken Ewing and I, and a fourth whom I cannot remember anymore, responded."

"Herb warned us we would probably just have a pleasant walk in an area that is normally closed to hikers. But, in fact, Herb's surmise turned out to be exactly correct. We had made our way about half way down this very long drainage, which was choked with downed trees and thick vegetation. Eiichi and I had lapsed into some conversation about science. Ken, taking his responsibilities more seriously, walked ahead yelling out every few minutes. Suddenly, his yell was answered by four very loud pistol shots. The women, knowing that they were lost, had made camp and were waiting patiently to be found. They were hungry and we had carried lots of food. So Eiichi prepared a meal and I was elected to take our radio and climb a high ridge to let the other searchers know of our find. Even on top of the ridge, the signal was weak and so I climbed a tree to improve reception. I remember asking Herb to be sure to have a car meet us at the end of Canyon Road, but I needn't have worried. A huge crowd, including several reporters, were waiting for us when we emerged several hours later."

The Mountaineers used to conduct annual rescue practices at the Back Rocks or the White Rock "Y." Ken Ewing often volunteered to be "rescued," and endured many bumps while being lowered in the litter. Once Ken also had the thrilling experience of being lifted up into an army helicopter while strapped into a litter. Ken learned how to carry an injured person by having them sit in a coiled rope and then strapping the rope to his shoulders so they could ride on his back. Sometimes, when people died, they willed their climbing equipment to Ken, and he donated it to the club's equipment cage at the Fire Station on Arkansas Street.

Fig. 1. Herb Kincey and the Mountaineers carry the litter during 
search and rescue practice at the "Y." (Bob Cowan photo, April 1972).

The club also received a lot of generous help from Herb Kincey in Santa Fe, who used to operate a climbing store in his house. Len Margolin recalls that "Herb was always concerned for safety and helped to formulate many of the belaying techniques that we used. He also taught a great many young climbers to respect the cliffs." Ken Ewing once jumped out of a helicopter during a rescue exercise with college students from St. John's. He landed badly and hit his knee very forcefully, leaving him with a permanent limp. 

The club's search and rescue expertise also came in good stead at the Brazos cliffs. Len Margolin was involved in a rescue at the Brazos in the early 1970's. He recalls that "Two young climbers had gotten most of the way up the gully east of Easy Ridge, which was later named the Bowling Alley in recognition of its constant rock fall. However, the climbers were unable to exit the final overhang and instead managed to rappel most of the way down before running out of hardware and daylight. They were stuck about 6 pitches up and had managed to attract attention by yelling. Bob Hobson, steward of the main cliffs and good friend to the Mountaineers, called the state police, specifically asking for Don Liska and me to respond for a rescue."

"Early the next morning, Don and I were flown north by a local Civil Air Patrol pilot, Stretch Fretwell. On the way, Stretch decided to buzz the cliffs to give us "the big picture" before dropping us off at the unpaved airstrip at the Brazos Land & Cattle Ranch. However, with the plane flying nearly 90 degrees from horizontal and with the cliffs so close we could almost touch them, both Don and I became airsick and had to plead with Stretch not to take a second pass." 

"Stretch did take two passes in landing, one to scare the cows off the small dirt airstrip and the second to land. We were met by the state police, transported to the Brazos Lodge, and were at the base of the cliffs roping up by 10 AM. Other LAMC climbers were driving up with the Stokes litter, in case an evacuation was required, and so Don and I went up to assess the situation. In fact, both climbers were fine, if cold and hungry. We were greeted with the question 'got any food'?"

"This was a rescue with a happy ending. We all rappelled down and walked out on our own feet. The young climbers had acted responsibly, although LAM rules would have frowned upon a trip with only one rope team. Don and I were treated to a good dinner at the Lodge, courtesy of the Hobsons. We were also offered a flight back home, which we declined in favor of a ride with the state police. I believe the successful conclusion of this rescue was a major factor in persuading Bob Hobson to allow continued climbing on the cliffs."

The club's search and rescue expertise was again required at the Brazos in June 1978, when there was a rock climbing accident on Central Rib in the Brazos, about 1000 feet up on the cliff. Club member Don Shirk took a lead fall and broke his leg at 3 PM in the afternoon, and he had to spend the night on the cliff with his partner. Norbert Ensslin and his partner rappelled back to the ground, getting down just after dark, and phoned Len Margolin to start the rescue operation. The next day, Don Liska, Len Margolin, Lou Horak, Larry Dauelsberg, and other experienced mountaineers climbed up to the injured climber and conducted a full scale rescue operation to lower him to the ground in a litter and get him to the hospital. Don Shirk had spent the night wrapped in a down jacket, but his partner had spent the night freezing and shivering on the ledge next to him. That same person had experienced a serious case of heat prostration on an earlier Grand Canyon trip. When he came down from the cliffs, he couldn't help noting that "you really get your money's worth on Mountaineers' trips!"

Over the course of time, some senior club members like Larry Campbell and Hank Blackwell shifted their focus from climbing to search and rescue and became certified Search and Rescue directors for the State of New Mexico. And, the club itself dropped out of this activity in 1988, when New Mexico State Highway Patrol rules for training and certification made it too difficult for the club to obtain and maintain certification. Jan Studebaker was our last Search and Rescue director; a job he held for two years.

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