Behind the scenes: crews train for dangerous, daring rescue missions on Mt. Shasta

MOUNT SHASTA, Calif. — It’s a new climbing season on the iconic, Northern California peak of Mount Shasta.

Every year, agencies complete dozens of rescues on the over 14,000-foot mountain. The operations are often dangerous and time-consuming with rescuers racing against the clock.

“Every rescue has its own unique set of circumstances including the story of the people behind the rescue,” said Sgt. Donovan Geyer, Aerial Supervisor for the Northern Division Air Operations of California Highway Patrol.

Each year, travelers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe heed the call of Mount Shasta. The active volcano towering over 14-thousand feet is the second-highest peak in the Cascades.

From adventurers to spiritual seekers, the Mount Shasta Chamber of Commerce says it draws about 26,000 people to the region every year.

However, Sgt. Geyer sees a different side of the mountain.

“The mountain is a very dangerous thing,” said Sgt. Geyer. “And it needs to be respected.”

He says many people don’t take the right precautions before planning their trip.

“We’ve done quite a few rescues where people have been up there for several days, maybe a weather front comes in and they’re stuck. And being unprepared for the mountain, we end up seeing the devastating effects of that afterward,” said Sgt. Geyer.

Stranded, lost, in distress, injured, he says the list goes on. And as summer brings a new climbing season, inevitable search and rescue missions come along with it.

It’s why every year, local, state, and federal agencies come together to train right before Shasta’s peak season.

From getting hands-on experience with the equipment to re-enacting life-threatening scenarios on the mountain, crews need to be prepared emotionally and physically. And with powerful winds and sometimes limited visibility, a real rescue is a matter of life or death.

“The mountain’s dangerous, you know, one little slip… and you can fall a long ways,” said Deputy Michael Burns, Deputy Search and Rescue Coordinator for the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputy Burns says the sheriff’s office averages 30 calls on the mountain every year and its already had 6 rescue missions on the mountain since Friday.

But the mountain doesn’t just pose a threat to the people in need of saving.

Deputy Burns says when helicopters can’t be used because of weather, altitude, and a number of other reasons, crews gear up for a big hike.

“We have had to go up there, it can take 20 plus hours to walk somebody off the mountain that’s injured,” he said.

As for lead Mountain Ranger, Nick Meyers, a rescue mission on Mount Shasta has other demands besides a physical one.

“Often times there’s climbers, family, or friends that are nearby that are, you know, getting worked up,” he said.

Rangers like Meyer, who work on the mountain, are often the first on the scene in an emergency and can be the first ones to call 911.

“You can’t let emotions infiltrate the scenario or situation,” he said. “There’s got to be no time for thinking [and] just doing.”

The training, manpower, and resources, it’s all just another day on the job for these search and rescue crews.

Although they’ll be the first to say they’re no stranger to gazing up at the snow-capped mountain in awe and wonder, they understand perhaps better than anyone a different, less forgiving side of this Northern California peak.

“And it is sad. It’s unfortunate that you know somebody that intended to go up there for the enjoyment of the mountain itself and the wilderness area and suffered the setbacks of some sort of tragedy either from their own unpreparedness or the unpredictability of the mountain and what it can present them with,” said Sgt. Geyer.

So, if Mount Shasta’s your next great adventure, a word of caution from the men and women who risk their lives to save yours: be cautious and plan ahead or else you may meet one of these real-life heroes.

For more information on Mount Shasta hikes and how to prepare, click here.

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