TACOMA -- Scott Salkovics was getting ready for bed May 30 when he got a call from the National Park Service.
Six climbers scaling one of the most dangerous routes on Mount Rainier hadn’t been heard from in more than 48 hours.Salkovics’ Army Reserve unit and their CH-47 Chinook helicopters were needed on the upper reaches of Carbon Glacier.
Salkovics, a chief warrant officer, belongs to the Joint-Base Lewis-McChord unit that helps do search-and-rescue for missing climbers who attempt to scale the icy peaks of Mount Rainier.
The previous week, the reservists had spent four days on their annual training. They practiced hoist operations on the mountainside and identified hazardous conditions, such as crevasses and avalanche zones, on popular climbing routes.
Now, with the phone call, Salkovics knew he’d be flying a real mission the next morning with his unit, the 1st Battalion, 214th General Support Aviation Regiment.
Despite the adrenaline rush, he knew he needed sleep.
“After a while, you just learn to turn it off and go to bed,” said Salkovics, chomping on a cigar while reflecting several days later.
After a three-hour search May 31, park rangers turned the mission into recovery mode after concluding the climbers were dead.
Their fall from Liberty Ridge was the deadliest incident on the 14,411-foot mountain since 1981, when 11 people were buried in an avalanche.
Chuck Young, chief ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, said Monday that the park service is pursing an active investigation and will continue with a limited search.
He said Liberty Ridge is open for climbers but continues to be defined as a dangerous and highly technical route.
Young said the park has not recovered anything from the six missing climbers.
“We may never find out what happened,” he said.
Young said the Reserve unit is an invaluable asset.
“We feel very lucky that they are here and that they are willing to assist in rescuing people off the mountain,” he said. “We would have a hard time doing this without them.”
He said the Chinook helicopters allow the unit to rescue climbers above 10,000 feet, an altitude that cannot be reached with most civilian aircraft.
The reservists have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they supplied humanitarian aid after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake rocked Northern Pakistan in 2005.
But it is back home in the South Sound where they sometimes face extreme weather such as whiteouts and tough winds that can exceed 100 mph on Mount Rainier.
Chief Warrant Officer Rich Bovey said the partnership with the Parks Service provides critical service to climbers, and allows pilots to receive key experience in a high-altitude environment.
“We get a unique opportunity to go train in the park,” he said.
Bovey, who’s been flying Chinooks for 17 years and has served with the Reserve unit for 10 years, said summer is the busiest time because of an increase in climbers.