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Jan-05-2010 03:15printcomments

Sheriff Craig Roberts Reflects on Recent Mount Hood Mission

Oregon sheriff recalls tragic event that ended on December 16th‏.

Oregon Guard Blackhawk
Oregon Guard Blackhawk assisted in mountain search.

(CLACKAMAS, Ore.) - Making the decision to suspend a search and rescue mission is among the most difficult that I am required to make as Clackamas County Sheriff. Unfortunately, that was how our rescue efforts for Katie Nolan and Anthony Vietti ended on December 16.

Sheriff Craig Roberts

The mission received national media attention, so you might think that by now everybody knows everything that happened up on the mountain —- but I want to tell you about some of the things you didn't see on television.

On the last day of the search, it was clear that all of the elements had turned against us. The avalanche danger was so severe that even stable slopes had started to slide, making it impossible for climbers to head up the mountain. Also, a storm system had covered the mountain with clouds, posing a serious challenge to the Army National Guard helicopters that were helping us search from the air.

In spite of that, a helicopter took off from Salem that morning and flew north. They didn't show this on TV, because there was nothing to see, but all of us on the ground heard the sound of its rotors as it circled overhead, hoping for a break in the clouds over Timberline Lodge. On the ground, a pair of pararescue jumpers from the 304th Rescue Squadron waited in their orange parkas for their chance to climb on board and take one last look for the missing climbers.

One of their commanders described the plan to me: the helicopter would fly towards the mountain between cloud layers, fighting 60-mile-an-hour winds. If they spotted something, one of the rescuers would be lowered using a winch. Then, the helicopter would deliberately rock from side to side, swinging the man on the end of the line like a pendulum so that he could try to hook the side of the mountain with his ice axe.

Luke Gullberg, Katie Nolan and Anthony Vietti

He looked me in the eye and told me that they would do all of this, even though the best medical advice we were getting was that there was less than a one percent chance that Katie and Anthony were still alive.

That's just one example of the enormous courage and dedication I saw on the side of that mountain. The members of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office who coordinated the search worked for days on end and refused to be relieved. They wanted to finish what they had started, for the missing climbers and for their families.

Likely one of the greatest acts of bravery during the entire rescue effort was made by Katie and Anthony's climbing companion, Luke Gullberg. Although we do not yet understand exactly what happened, it's likely that Luke set out to get help after there was an accident high on the mountain. Apparently, he left most of his own gear behind with his friends to increase their chances for survival — then succumbed to exhaustion and hypothermia during the descent.

Luke's body was recovered early in the search by volunteers, who took time off from work and away from loved ones to climb the mountain — putting their own lives at risk to rescue people they had never met. It isn't widely recognized, but unpaid volunteers account for most search and rescue efforts in Oregon. Of the 107,000 hours spent performing search and rescue missions in 2008, 85 percent were provided by volunteers.

More than anything else I personally witnessed during the mission, I was affected by the patience, the gratitude and the enduring faith of the missing climbers' families. From the start, they were worried about the safety of the searchers on the mountain, and their concerns only grew as conditions got worse. Yet, when Katie's mother, Darla, hugged me, she whispered how grateful she was that I had made that one last attempt.

I was almost overcome by emotion myself, knowing that it was increasingly unlikely that we would find them alive — but in a strange way, her hug and support gave me the strength to face the family later with the sad news that the rescue effort was over.

This tragedy has changed the lives of the climbers' families forever. Their time on the mountain — hoping to see their son, or their daughter, or their brother, or their sister or their cousin climb out of a helicopter — will always be a vivid memory for them.

Like their families, the members of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and everyone else who fought to save Luke, Katie and Anthony, will always remember them. By the time I stepped up to the microphones to announce that the rescue phase of the search had ended, I felt like part of their family, and so did everyone else. That takes a personal toll on all of us. Over the course of a career, these experiences have lasting emotional impacts.

Knowing this, we take care of ourselves and we take care of each other. We have to, because there are more people out there who need our help, and more families waiting anxiously for news about a missing loved one.

Each year, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office conducts an average of 120 search and rescue missions — that means we launch one every two or three days. Most will never get the kind of attention that this one received from the public and the media, but they are all just as important to me.

If your mother has Alzheimer's disease and she wanders away from home, or your brother gets lost while he's out hunting, or your child is missing, you will want me to deploy every resource available to find them — and I will. It doesn't matter whether or not anybody ever sees it on television or reads about it in the newspapers, we do it because we care.

Craig Roberts

Clackamas County Sheriff

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Anonymous January 5, 2010 5:42 pm (Pacific time)

Thank you!

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.