Grande Ronde Rappellers rescue woman in Eagle Cap Wilderness

·3 min read

Jul. 29—UNION COUNTY — A 78-year-old woman may owe her life to the U.S. Forest Service's Grande Ronde Rappellers.

The Grande Rappellers, who are based at the Union County Airport, rescued the woman, who suffered an ankle injury after she fell in the Eagle Cap Wilderness on Wednesday, July 27.

The woman was in the East Eagle Drainage of the wilderness on the eastern edge of Union County, 39 miles southeast of La Grande when she was injured at about 10 a.m. on July 27.

Union County Search and Rescue was notified of the accident at 11 a.m. on July 27, and requested a hoist capable helicopter in Western Oregon from the National Guard to help in rescuing the patient. The request was made because of the remoteness of the location the patient was in, her age, the extreme heat at the time and the extended amount of time it would take to get to the site using vehicles and other ground resources, said Union County Emergency Manager Nick Vora.

After the request was made the Union County SAR officials began checking to see what local aviation resources were available and discovered that the Grande Ronde Rappellers, who specialize in firefighting, could be sent to rescue the woman. Vora said often the GR Rappellers would not have been available because they are fighting fires but they were not on July 27.

The rappellers were sent to rescue the woman but their Forest Service helicopter was not able to land near the patient due to a steep slope, so four rappellers, including trained wilderness first responders and paramedics, rappelled out of the helicopter and began assessing the patient and preparing a plan to transport her out. The Forest Service crew was able to identify a landing zone approximately 1,200 yards away by a trail where a medivac helicopter could land, and requested that one be dispatched.

A Union County Search and Rescue coordinator, working with dispatch personnel at the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center, then ordered a Life Flight helicopter to attempt landing at the location identified. A Life Flight helicopter responded from La Grande, while the rappel crew placed the patient in a sked litter and initiated transport down a steep hillside to the landing zone. The National Guard helicopter was kept en route from Western Oregon in case the Life Flight helicopter was unable to land but later was turned back.

The Life Flight helicopter landed at the designated helispot and subsequently transported the patient to the Union County Airport where a city of La Grande Fire Department ambulance took her to Grande Ronde Hospital.

The woman was treated for nonlife threatening injuries, Vora said.

Both the Life Fight and the Forest Service helicopters returned to the area after the patient was transported and picked up all of the remaining personnel involved in the rescue.

Vora said the Life Flight Network's staff and Forest Service staff involved, especially the Grande Ronde Rappellers, deserve much credit for the rescue.

"Without their professional assistance, this call would have taken many more hours to resolve and may have resulted in a different outcome for the patient," Vora said.

The total rescue process took about five hours, Vora said, adding that without helicopters the process could have taken about 14 hours.

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer. Contact him at 541-624-6016 or