WENATCHEE — Vernon Nelson Jr. estimates he’s completed 60 to 70 mountain rescues in the past 11 years, as part of the Chelan County Mountain Rescue Association.
Successfully bringing someone to safety is a great feeling, he said, but he remembers most the people who died.
“I mean all the fatalities stick out just because of what those families go through and how hard that can be for everyone,” he said. “But last year we had a pretty involved rescue off of Mount Stuart where we had to lower a young lady down the side of Mount Stuart.”
It was too hot for the helicopters to operate that day, so Nelson’s team lowered the woman about 1,700 feet to where the helicopter could pick her up and take her to receive medical treatment, he said.
“It was a complicated mission, but the team had been training really hard the last four or five years,” Nelson said. “It was nice for me to see, from the leadership position, of everything we’ve been working on syncing together and going pretty much flawlessly.”
Nelson, 33, is president of the volunteer mountain rescue organization. He is also an Eastmont High School social studies teacher, where he has been for almost eight years. The combination helped secure his place as a member of the Wenatchee Valley Business World's 30 under 35 Class of 2021, which recognizes the community's young movers and shakers.
Nelson is a great partner and leader, who can be relied on in difficult and dangerous activities, said Jacob Leonard, Chelan County Mountain Rescue Association (CCMRA) member and a friend of Nelson's.
"Any new adventure, I'm definitely reaching out to him, because he's just a dialed individual, very smart, educates himself, continues to grow as a person," Leonard said.
One of the things that brought Nelson to the Wenatchee area is his love of ice climbing. Banks Lake near Coulee City is one of the best locations in the world for ice climbing, Nelson said.
His love of the outdoors and his climbing ability led to his involvement in CCMRA.
“My whole life has been about service and about giving back and so it just seemed like a natural fit to use my skill set to try and help you know,” Nelson said.
CCMRA is different from the Chelan County Search and Rescue volunteer organization, he said. CCMRA volunteers participate in rescues in difficult terrain, such as on Mount Stuart and Dragontail that often involve climbing. Search and rescue focuses more on helping lost or injured hikers in less complicated terrain.
One of the things he’s noticed about rescues in technical terrain is that often the people know exactly what they’re doing, but just had a bad day, Nelson said.
“It’s not a lack of experience. It’s unfortunate events,” he said. “Like we had a fatality on Dragontail earlier this year and the guy did nothing wrong. It’s just sometimes rocks come loose and people fall.”
Nelson predicts more people will explore the outdoors in the future, especially in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness — where most of their rescues already occur, he said. He can see challenges ahead, such as environmental impact on the region and an increased number of rescues.
“We have seen an uptick in rescues, but the flip side of that is we’ve seen a stabilization in missions. Five or six years ago we used to get a lot of overdue hikers,” Nelson said.
Everyone travels with satellite phones nowadays, he said, so if they’re running late they can just text people. It has reduced the number of times the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office is flying into the wilderness on a helicopter to check up on people.
“I used to joke that we were less mountain rescue and more mountain searching,” Nelson said. “But the last like three or four years that’s kind of switched back.”
The number of people in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness also makes it difficult for Nelson’s volunteers to explore the area, which can be helpful when performing rescues, he said.
“The bummer for me as a team leader is my rescues are going to be on Dragontail, so I want my members to be familiar with that mountain,” Nelson said.
As a teacher, Nelson has a whole different set of mountains to navigate.
His goal as a teacher is to have students able to look at all of the facts and draw their own conclusions.
“I think that’s the ultimate goal with social studies right?” Nelson said. “It’s not facts and dates. You can ask Google for that. It’s to synthesize that information and inform your own opinion.”
Nelson's classroom experience helps him as a leader for mountain rescue, he said. Both fields require clear objectives and expectations of what the result of a person's training will look like.
"Mountain rescue can also be a lot of people management, which you also get in the classroom," Nelson said. "Adults can often be some of the most difficult students and it takes the skills of a teacher to keep everyone on task."