Beyond 40 Hours

odd Shechter, Anna Pakenham Stevenson, and John Stevenson in front of an Oregon Army National Guard UH-72A Lakota Helicopter.

“He might have survived, or he might have succumbed to exhaustion, dehydration, or hypothermia,” said Todd Shechter (’99 B.S., Management Information Systems), a member of the all-volunteer Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit (CMRU).

Not every CMRU mission has a happy ending, and at the start of each one — a dozen or more a year — that nagging question hangs in the air: Is this going to be a rescue or a body recovery?

From 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2017, three men from CMRU had bushwhacked and rappelled through steep terrain near Natural Phantom Bridge, a 60-foot rock arch eight miles northwest of Detroit, Oregon. They were looking for a 40-year-old man who’d headed out on an overnight camping trip with a day’s supply of food. He should have returned two days earlier. The searchers came up empty, as did teams dispatched by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and a pair of Oregon Air National Guard helicopters.

When an empty campsite was found a few miles north of CMRU’s position, the command center, located 25 miles to the northwest, asked them to check it out. They found worrisome signs: the man’s tent, food, and sleeping bag. They suspected he had moved even farther north, away from the nearest road, and they wanted to give chase. Instead, the incident commander instructed them to retreat south and prepare to start fresh in the morning. But they had other ideas.

“I remember getting on the radio and saying, ‘There’s a trail leading north, and we think the guy took it, why not let us check it out?’” Shechter said. “We felt good, the weather was good, and we had plenty of daylight, food, and water.”

That did the trick. The team ascended through thick vine maple and crested a ridgeline a couple of hours later. By then, late afternoon, they were resigned that they wouldn’t find their target that day. “That’s a bad feeling,” Shechter said. Then, everyone stopped in their tracks.

They all heard it. Shechter thought it might be a bird or another search team, but there it was again, and no mistake: “Help me, help me!”

“We thought we were done for the day, and all of sudden I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, that’s real,’” he said. “We just heard this guy, and he’s hidden down there somewhere.”

From the ridge, Shechter relayed compass bearings to one of the helicopters, directing it toward the source of the sound. Twice it circled in; twice it withdrew, contending with a tree canopy so thick that the team couldn’t see the aircraft when it was nearly overhead. So CMRU started down the slope, alternately calling the victim’s name and stopping to listen for a response. Not 10 minutes later, at 5:30 p.m., they found him lying on the ground a few hundred feet below the ridge. He was exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated, but uninjured.

“This shock runs through you, and you think, ‘Wow, we actually found this guy, he’s alive!’” Shechter said. “That doesn’t always happen.”

They filled him with hot food, warm Gatorade, and reassuring words, and then put him in dry clothes. Several hours later, they all strapped on headlamps and walked the man out, slowly, in darkness, three miles to the road.

“The stars aligned for this guy, because we were the last team in the field and we were his last hope for the night,” Shechter said. “Sometimes you just
luck out.”

It’s great when luck bends your way, but it’s not luck that rouses three people from warm beds, two hours before dawn, on a Saturday to help someone in desperate need.

For Shechter, who is from Fairbanks, Alaska, rescuing people runs in the family. His father was a fire chief and his brother is a paramedic. In 2005, he joined CMRU, a tight-knit band of about 25 men and women.

“It’s just a wonderful group that wants to give a little back to our community,” Shechter said. “We trust each other with our lives. We have to. It can be draining, but also very rewarding, to help people who are having the worst day of their life.”

After every mission, the team reviews its performance and lessons learned — what they did, what they saw, and what could be fixed. If it was a body recovery, an entirely different emotional support component plays in.

“Everybody deals with it in their own way, but it’s very important to come together as a team and talk things through,” Shechter said. “When we come home to Corvallis, we go our own ways. Sometimes we go right to work, sometimes to our homes and families, sometimes to sleep. Whatever you need to do; life continues, and you have to be able to go out and do it again.”

Photo: Courtesy of Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit

Sept. 18, 2018