The Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) celebrates its 50 birthday on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. at the Country Club at Soboba Springs in San Jacinto, a goodly distance from the mountain rescue work in which this skilled and committed group of volunteers is usually engaged. And it would not be surprising if, during the course of the anniversary dinner, there would be a mobilization call.
Read any of their mission logs dating back to the 1960s on their website www.rmru.org, and you’ll find recurring scenarios of volunteers’ private lives being interrupted — team members just sitting down to Christmas dinner, ready for a Fourth of July celebration, leaving on a family outing, or even more regularly, just returning from an RMRU mission — when their pager or, more recently, cell phone changes their plans with yet another emergency. Their logs reveal a wide range of emergencies to which they respond: rescuing lost or injured hikers, stranded climbers on a rock face, recovery missions of people who have died in the wilderness, responding to mountain and desert aircraft crashes, rescues of a lost boy scout troop in a blinding blizzard, finding young children who have wandered out of a mountain camp and even retrieving a hiker’s exhausted dog. Complicating their efforts is that much of their work is carried on in difficult and often inaccessible terrain and severely inclement weather.
Glenn Henderson, current RMRU president, has been with the unit since 1981. He remembered many changes, such as improved vehicles and equipment, that have taken place since he joined RMRU.
“But each of us has a particular rescue they remember that makes it all worthwhile,” he said. For Henderson it was in 1985, finding a very young boy in the dark and early morning. The boy had wandered away from his camp in the Black Canyon area. Henderson and Kevin Walker had been told to search water areas, thus expecting that they would be conducting a body recovery.
“We kept calling his name, and then after many hours of searching, we heard him. Returning him to his parents at camp was a great feeling!” Henderson recalled.
Founded in 1961 with six members and an annual budget of $200, RMRU now has 40 members, an annual budget of $15,000 and operates under the aegis of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. To date it has completed nearly 1,400 missions with 2.24 missions per month as an annual average, although in winter months the number of rescues escalates. It is not unusual during winter for RMRU to conduct three or four missions over the course of one weekend. The unit performs 95 percent of its missions in Riverside County but historically has traveled to Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Mexico and north into the High Sierras to effect searches and rescues. Each member provides and pays for their own equipment totaling $3,000 or more.
Helicopters have played a critical role in RMRU rescues from the early years until today. Mandatory December helitac trainings comprise a regular part of RMRU team exercises, preparing members to perform “hover step” exits from a hovering helicopter, being lowered down to and up from inaccessible terrain, and being trained to enter a copter from the ground while it has, at best, one runner on the ground. As more recreational hikers and climbers began visiting the San Jacinto Mountains, the need for helicopter assists increased. Other mandatory training areas include technical rock, snow and ice, and tracking.
Occasionally, RMRU has to rescue one of its own. On Nov. 27, 2010, seven RMRU members set out on an unofficial training mission near Tahquitz Rock in snow and ice conditions. A team member, attempting to get a rope to a member further upslope, slipped backward and caught his leg in an ice hole, causing a compound fracture above the right ankle. Because of weather conditions, two hours and 15 minutes passed before a helicopter evacuation could be performed. But the helicopter assist expedited the rescue and getting the team member safely airlifted to a regional hospital.
Current member and past president Lee Arnson pays tribute to each past and present team member. “We need everybody else to function, to pull these rescues off,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if team members are in the field or on the radio or in the air, we work together. We come from a lot of different backgrounds and don’t necessarily socialize together, but when the call comes we come together.” Arnson recalls looking for a local resident on the mountain during a Christmas snowstorm, one of the worst he had ever seen. “We found her dog and figured she would be in the area,” he remembered. “Twelve hours later she was found in a different area, having spent the night, with no protective clothing, in a hollowed-out tree stump. I learned then how strong the human spirit is, how strong the will to survive is, and never to write anyone off.”
RMRU survives by the donations it receives. Visit www.rmru.org for more information on the organization.