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Crag Rats gather at Cloud Cap Inn, sporting their black and white wool in this historic photo from the Crag Rat Collection.

Fog hung low in the Hood River Valley on a late October day. The changing leaves of oaks and maples threw bright splotches of red and orange on the wet fall canvass of the Mount Hood foothills as the distinctive summit appeared and disappeared in flirting rain showers.

Inside the warm, dry Crag Rat Hut in Pine Grove, a crowd gathered to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the oldest all-volunteer search and rescue group in the nation. Members of the community, U.S. Forest Service employees and personnel from the Hood River County Sheriff’s Department were all there to acknowledge the Crag Rats: men and women clad in the signature black and white checkered wool jackets who have risked their own safety to bring endangered people down off the mountain for nine decades.

During his turn at the microphone, Sheriff Matt English explained that the Hood River County Sheriff’s Department, required by state law to respond to search and rescue requests, finds the Crag Rats’ help indispensable. It’s a tall order to cover 533 square miles of wild mountains, forests and rivers and serve a population of about 24,000 people.The sheriff’s department, with just 19 uniformed staff and about a dozen volunteer deputies, relies heavily on the all-volunteer Crag Rats.

“They fill the role of the actual searchers on the ground,” English said. “Without them we would have to recruit our own people and train and equip them.”

Moreover, English added, the Crag Rats are the most qualified to be looking for lost or injured people on the mountain. “They are the people in our county with the most hands-on experience with Mount Hood. There is nobody with more expertise than them.”

Serving the Community

Founded in 1926, the Crag Rats are climbers and mountaineers who often speak of a dual motivation: love of the outdoors and the desire to serve their community. This philosophy dates back to their first official mission, when an unorganized group of local outdoor enthusiasts rallied to rescue a boy who had strayed away from his family’s campsite on Mount Hood. When the child was found safe and sound, a reporter asked the group what they called themselves. Recalling that they had been teasingly labeled “rats” for deserting their families every weekend to go play in the crags of Mount Hood, the Crag Rats spontaneously found their name.

Approximately 100 county residents across three generations currently claim Crag Rats membership. Of those, 40 active members answer calls from the sheriff’s department, rallying for searches at short notice, often in the middle of the night and in bad weather. In addition to covering Hood River County, the organization provides support to Klickitat, Skamania, Wasco and Clackamas counties.

Crag Rat Secretary Christopher Van Tilburg joined the organization in 1999. An experienced mountaineer, emergency room doctor and outdoor author, Van Tilburg said the search and rescue calls commonly fall into three categories. “One-third on the mountain in snow, one-third on the trail and one-third at Eagle Creek or trails adjacent to it,” Van Tilburg said. “We’ve been called to Eagle Creek 12 times this year.”

Located in the Western Gorge, Eagle Creek is a hot spot for rescues because it’s close to Portland and one of the most visited trails in the Gorge. More importantly, people don’t realize it’s not a beginner trail.  The 3-mile route includes steep cliffs, two sections of cable railing and is often wet and slippery. In addition, the dramatic cascade of Punchbowl Falls has historically been popular for cliff jumping, a practice that is now illegal there.

Van Tilburg said the Crag Rats get called in to help people who are lost or injured or, as happened eight times this year, stuck in canyons. “At least half of the people who need help are prepared,” he said, meaning that they have the correct gear and training for the activity they are undertaking, but something just goes wrong.

Over the years, he’s seen an uptick in calls, from 15 to 20 calls per year to 28 to 30 missions per year, including several multi-day events. By October of 2016, the Crag Rats had responded to 24 missions, offering a total of 28 days of service and 1,100 hours.

More Visitors = More Missions

According to a report prepared for the Oregon Tourism Commission, an estimated 27.7 million people visited Oregon in 2015 and stayed overnight, an increase of 3.4 million over 2014. Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge are two of the state’s most popular destinations, thanks in part to an enthusiastic response to Travel Oregon’s Seven Wonders of Oregon campaign, highlighting seven of the state’s natural wonders. Some locations, like Smith Rock and the Columbia River Gorge, have seen overcrowding of trails as a result.

“We are trying to address how to change with the growing popularity,” Van Tilburg said.

English said his office is now fielding about 100 calls per year, which puts a strain on his staff, as well as the volunteers that help. “The volume of calls for service we get every year puts us in the top six for the state. The other counties getting that call volume are substantially larger than we are and have greater resources.”

Not all missions end as happily as the Crag Rats’ first rescue of that lost boy in 1926. One member recalled the devastating scene in January 2005 when a small plane crashed on Viento Ridge, claiming the lives of all three Gorge residents on board. In December of 2006, the Mount Hood deaths of three experienced mountaineers — Kelly James, Brian Hall and Jerry “Nikko” Cooke — made international news. And just this summer, a hiker died following a 70-foot fall on the Eagle Creek Trail.

Van Tilburg’s advice to outdoor explorers hoping to avoid the need to be rescued is to be prepared and well-equipped for any outing, and to carry a cell phone and a GPS navigation aid. “If they can tell us where they are and what the problem is, that is a huge benefit,” he said.

Even with the challenge of increased calls, the Crag Rats remains dedicated to service. The group does dozens of trainings per year and spends hundreds of hours clearing roads and maintaining the historic Cloud Cap Inn on Mount Hood, as wells as the newer clubhouse in Pine Grove. Van Tilburg said the organization seems to draw the right kind of people, skilled mountaineers who happen to also be firefighters, EMTs, ski patrollers and physicians.

“We somehow just get kindred spirits.” he said.

Public servants like English look forward to more years of partnering with the Crag Rats. “We are honored to have a relationship with an organization with such esteemed history and we are very pleased for them.”

Eileen Garvin lives and writes in Hood River, Oregon. When she’s not hunched over her keyboard or digging in the garden, you can find her mountain biking, kiteboarding, hiking, skiing or camping somewhere.

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