In addition to snarling traffic and growing property prices, there’s one unexpected result of Seattle’s population boom: more stranded campers and hikers.
The thriving tech industry — a draw for people to the scenic Northwest — has led to the inevitable increase in the number of people enjoying the outdoors. This attraction also poses dangerous and sometimes deadly risks.
A 71-year-old Port Angeles woman and her dog were found alive Sunday afternoon after being stranded in Olympic National Park for six days; however, three others lost their lives in the same park earlier this month.
In the last year alone, Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) has carried out 165 rescues – a 36 percent increase over the past five years. That roughly translates to a rescue every two days. Astoundingly, the all-volunteer rescue group’s members risk their lives without the assistance of taxpayer funds.
Are hikers making mistakes?
SMR board member Bree Loewen attributes the increase, not to major mistakes on the part of hikers, but rather to an all-too-common learning curve.
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“I think it’s just the fact that, like anything, it takes a lot of experience in order to be safe,” Loewen told Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio. “I think it’s such a beautiful place [in Seattle], and I really want people to be interested in protecting the back country. And in order for them to want to save it, they have to experience it. And in order to experience it, there’s a learning curve.”
Many parts of Washington state mountain trails are family-friendly. But terrain in higher elevations can be incredibly dangerous. Threats include avalanches, tree wells, and debris flows. Loewen has personally recovered the bodies of people that she’s known. It’s a jarring moment for members of such a close-knit mountain community.
“I think in a way it’s really an honor to be able to do that,” Loewen said. “Carrying your friend in their arms back to civilization is definitely, you know, it’s an experience. It’s also … kind of amazing to be able to feel like you’re able to do something…
“I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s sort of a crazy experience.”
While there are tragic recoveries, others are rewarding – even inspiring. One of Loewen’s favorite rescues was one she wasn’t on. Loewen’s own mother and mother-in-law found a woman with a broken ankle at Snow Lake and managed to splint her leg before Loewen’s crew arrived.
“[The woman] said she had a history of depression,” Loewen said. “And she thought the most amazing part was that all of these people had taken the day off from work and had come up using their own gas and their own volition and had carried her out in their arms. And there was probably 25 people there that day because it takes a lot of people to carry someone for miles and miles. And you know everyone was just so stoked and having such a wonderful time, and she said it was just sort of life-changing.”
What to do if you are lost in the wilderness
SMR also focuses on mountain safety education. Loewen advises that hikers who find themselves lost after wandering from the trail stay put.
“There have been a couple of people who have just kept going because they thought they would find civilization if they just kept going down a drainage or whatever, and we’ve followed them for days. Whereas if they’d stayed put, we could have found them in a few hours.”
Loewen adds that cell phone service in King County can typically be reliable. If stranded hikers are able to call 911, emergency responders are usually able to gather GPS coordinates.
“Sometimes it takes a number of hours to be able to hike to that location, but we’re pretty good at finding folks.”
If hikers or mountain climbers know they’ll be in an area with poor service, she advises they let someone know where they’ll be before starting the hike.
Aspiring hikers and nature-lovers shouldn’t let that deter them from exploring everything the King County wilderness has to offer. Loewen, laughing, notes her crew is patient with the learning curve it takes to become accustomed to the terrain: “We’re willing to give people a mulligan.”
Just remember to play it safe.
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