Bree Loewen sees things pretty clearly, and acts accordingly. When she and her husband, Russell Anschell, found themselves in the mountains every weekend, they decided to move to North Bend. Since they are “heavy back-country users,” she said it only made sense for them to volunteer with Seattle Mountain Rescue. Because they have a 5-year-old daughter, she is a stay-at-home mom, and they avoid working on the same missions, to minimize their risks.
It all sounds logical enough, but that’s not all there is to Loewen’s commitment.
“It really comes down to ‘this is our community,’” she says. “We’ve been doing this for such a long time and I think people have really come to rely on us.”
Loewen, a volunteer with King County Search and Rescue since she was 15, will represent the organization as grand marshal of the Festival at Mount Si parade Saturday.
Festival volunteer Tina Brandon, who chose the 490-member organization for the honor, said by e-mail that she always tries to choose a grand marshal with “a real connection to the community—that will bring a smile or maybe a tear to the crowd.”
Brandon, who’s lived near the Mount Si trailhead for 15 years and seen a lot of search and rescue efforts in that time, described how some of the recent incidents on the mountain — the 2012 plane crash and a missing skydiver earlier this year, as well as the overwhelming response from SAR volunteers —moved her to tears.
“I can’t think of anyone more deserving than (they) all are. Or anyone more likely to get a great response from the crowd,” she said.
Loewen, meanwhile, feels that she gets as much from her volunteer work as she gives. First, she says, “This is a beautiful place. There’s a reason we all live out here.”
A lifelong climber, she says “This is my user group, and these people are my friends.”
These people include her community, and the 51-member Seattle Mountain Rescue branch of Search and Rescue, in which she is the training chairperson.
SMR is one of eight branches in King County, and as the technical mountaineering experts of the organization, they are often in the North Bend area, where, she says, more than 90 percent of all Search and Rescue missions take place, “between Snoqualmie Pass and North Bend.”
“We come out on almost all of the missions that happen in King County,” she continued. “We do all the technical rescue and anything in mountaineering, anything that’s difficult to access. We also provide a lot of field leadership.”
Last year, rescue organizations in King County were sent on 128 missions, and SMR was on 99 of them. The most common call? Ankle injuries.
“We probably get maybe 15 or 20 broken ankles a year between Rattlesnake, Mount Si, Tiger Mountain — those are the big three — and Mailbox,” she says. “Those have the largest numbers of users, so it’s just statistical, it’s going to happen there.”
Loewen has volunteered and worked for Search and Rescue agencies in other places in the past, she said, but has never found the level of teamwork and professionalism she has here.
“It’s kind of unparalleled,” she says, thinking about past missions. “Just the number of people it takes to carry out someone with a sprained ankle … It takes 30 people, because after you carry someone for a few minutes, your arms burn up.”
Also, because the volunteers are all recreational mountain users themselves, “There’s a feeling, whenever we go to get someone, that we’re getting one of our own.”
Last year, Loewen went on 33 missions, some of them multiple days. She says she has “a great setup” for childcare when she’s on a mission, with both her parents and in-laws nearby, but she is also aware of the risks she’s running every time she goes on a mission, especially with her husband, a construction worker, doing the same volunteer work.
“We definitely made some conscious decisions not to be on the same team at the same time,” she said, and family members understand.
“It’s rare to go a year without rescuing someone that I know,” Loewen said, and “I think my family has come to recognize that I’m giving back to a group that will probably come get me one day!”
Giving back is a challenge at times, requiring “an enormous amount of training,” and a minimum number of missions each year. Then there are the missions themselves.
“Usually these things tend to start in the middle of the night — I don’t know why that is,” Loewen said on a recent Monday morning. “Whenever it’s least convenient, 2 a.m. Monday morning is very popular, and there was one that actually started at 5 a.m. this morning…”
Rescuers tend to keep their gear packed and ready to go, so they can respond quickly, she says, then "we'll meet in base and sort of discuss the overall big picture, what we're going to do, formulate a plan, go through an incident action plan, then head into the field and take care of it."
Sounds simple enough, and in some ways, it is. "We do feel like we're part of the community," she said. "We don't judge and we don't charge."
Because she has a daughter interested in climbing and back-country skiing, too, she wants to keep things that simple.
"There's always the desire, as a parent, to have your child take up table-tennis," she said, but "You want to live life, doing what you want to do, and I want that for her, too. I'll just teach her to do everything right, and make her read Accidents in North American Mountainering!"
Knowing the excellent response that people get from King County Search and Rescue, Loewen will probably keep her daughter close to home, too.
"This is a great place to get injured," she says, laughing. "I would not want to get hurt anywhere but King County."
SMR members train for a river rescue last January.
Members of Seattle Mountain Rescue take a break during a training exercise.
Search and Rescue volunteers assemble for high line training at Denny Creek.
Setting out on a training mission, Seattle Mountain Rescue members, from left, are: Josh Ferris, Bree Loewen, Garth Bruce, Russel Anschell and Ryan Cross.
A group photo of Seattle Mountain Rescue volunteers.
Rescuers make their way up Guy Peak in a 2011 training exercise.
More ropes training by SAR members.