Submitted by Orcas Island Fire and Rescue.
In a truly collaborative feat, Orcas and Lopez fire departments joined forces last week when two hikers — one of whom was a visitor — found themselves in danger on Chadwick Hill at Watmough Bay on the south end of Lopez.
A daring off-trail excursion resulted in the two being separated along a cliffside and before long the weather turned from bad to worse. With winds and rain increasing and darkness creeping in, the conditions made it impossible for either hiker to climb to safety. Realizing the severity of the situation, the visiting hiker dialed 9-1-1. San Juan County Dispatch was able to pinpoint their location, despite a language barrier and limited cell coverage and sent Lopez Island units to the rescue.
Upon arrival, Lopez firefighter/paramedic Caleb Pal established command, and emergency crews went to work to locate the hikers — but the team quickly realized its task would be riddled with an added hurdle of poor radio communications with dispatch.
“It’s always a challenge to have a complex scene when you need resources and can’t reach dispatch,” stressed Pal, who was eventually able to get through on a repeater frequency established for use by Orcas Island Fire and Rescue.
OIFR Batallion Chief Patrick Shepler and Captain Chad Kimple, who were monitoring the call from Orcas, offered assistance if needed and began to assemble a rescue team on standby.
Within an hour and a half, Lopez crews had located one hiker, who was walked out and treated at the scene. The caller, however, was still trapped. As nightfall set in and inclement weather worsened the team had growing concern for the health and safety of the remaining hiker. While crews were able to come within voice-range of the hiker, who was an estimated 100 feet below their location, they could not see him. With a limited number of trained rescue personnel on-island, Pal requested assistance from both the Navy and the Coast Guard, but neither were available to assist in the bleak conditions.
Pal then affirmed a request for mutual aid and the OIFR Technical Rescue Team was dispatched to the scene. Sheriff’s deputies assisted in transporting the Orcas rescue team by boat among swells reaching six feet, gusting winds and relentless rain. Once on Lopez, OIFR Rescue Lieutenant Rich Harvey and his team of eight met face-to-face with Pal before hiking in to begin a tedious high-angle and vertical rope approach to the hiker.
After a total of six and a half hours stranded in the elements, the second hiker was located 135-linear feet down the cliffside, clinging to a small ledge at the base of a tree. Soaked and shivering, the man was extricated and treated for mild hypothermia by Lopez EMTs.
“We are neighbors helping neighbors,” Shepler, said. “It’s what we’re here for, what we train for, and we were glad to help.”