A special place
Right below the treeline, at the end of an 11-mile dirt road snaking its way up the north side of Oregon’s Mount Hood, sits Cloud Cap Inn. The historic cabin, built in 1889, is now a staging point for the Crag Rats, the nation’s oldest search and rescue organization. Founded in 1926, the Crag Rats are a volunteer group of highly-experienced mountaineers who perform upwards of 50 rescue missions a year on Mount Hood and in the nearby Columbia River Gorge.
Cloud Cap Inn is not permanently occupied, but it feels cared for as if it were—a homebase with emphasis on the home. Step inside, and your eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness, but open the massive weather shutters protecting the windows and southern light pours into the room, illuminating a treasure trove of maps, photos, artworks, newspaper clippings, and other mementos telling stories from the Crag Rat’s nearly 100-year history. There’s a large wooden table in the center of the room and a fireplace in the corner with a stack of wood standing by, brought up from the basement on a hand-cranked lift. Look up and you’ll find a row of boots resting on a rafter and a crossed pair of old wooden skis hanging on the wall.
“It’s a special place,” says Jon Gehrig. He’s one of two Crag Rats, along with Will Bibbo, giving us the tour today. “It’s a beacon of hope when you’re up on the glacier in the dark and can see the cabin’s lights shining through the storm.”
“It’s a special place. It’s a beacon of hope when you’re up on the glacier in the dark and can see the cabin’s lights shining through the storm.
“To be a Crag Rat, you need to come to the table with a robust skillset,” Jon explains. “They’re looking for people who already have extensive experience.” That includes having summited Mount Hood, but on-the-job training is available for other skills, such as rope and knot training and first aid certifications.
Even with all that, one hurdle remains: new members have to be voted in. “Just because you meet all the requirements doesn’t mean you made it,” Jon says. “We have to be able to work together in the worst of conditions. Personality fit is a huge deal.”
A lifelong local, Jon learned of the Crag Rats at an early age thanks to his Scoutmaster, who was a member. When it came time, it was an easy decision for him to join. “I love being outside. If I can do that and give back to the community, that’s what I want to do,” he says.
Will’s introduction to the Crag Rats came more recently. An avid outdoor enthusiast who moved to Oregon from South Carolina, he first heard about the Crag Rats during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which burned 50,000 acres of forest along the Columbia River Gorge. Eagle Creek is a popular hiking destination in Oregon, and when the fire broke out, about 150 people became trapped as it blocked the trail back to the parking lot. Instead of being able to return to their vehicles, no more than 2 miles away, the hikers had to get out via an alternate route some 14 miles long. A Forest Service ranger was able to lead them part of the way, but the hikers were ill-prepared for such a long journey and would need to hunker down until help could arrive.
The Crag Rats would take that same 14-mile route in the opposite direction to reach them, but it was midnight by the time they made it to the trailhead. That didn’t stop them. They hiked overnight and reached the stranded group by dawn with water and rations. By that afternoon, they had safely guided every hiker out. Mission accomplished.
“That’s when I knew I had to get involved,” Will says.
His first mission? Cooking dinner at the Crag Rats’ annual winter outing, a job he eagerly volunteered for. After that, “I started attending every training I possibly could,” he says. Today, he makes it out on roughly 15 rescue missions per year.
We had to safely navigate a stretcher through a logjam across the river. It was a technical problem we had to solve on the fly with the gear we had on hand.
Based in Hood River County, the Crag Rats’ territory spans the north side of Mount Hood to the Columbia River, running west down the Gorge toward Portland. But they also get called on mutual aid rescues in other counties in both Oregon and Washington, often working alongside other SAR groups.
“I love anytime we get to work with the Coast Guard or the Airforce’s 304th Rescue Squadron,” Will says. He remembers a particular rescue in Eagle Creek where the Crag Rats had to assist with a helicopter evacuation. Dead trees jutted up all around the evacuation zone. The challenge was finding a suitable place for the helicopter to lower a rescuer with enough room to hoist up the injured hiker. “But those guys were on it,” Will remembers. “It’s always cool to watch them work.”
Jon found himself on a similar rescue in Eagle Creek, with another injured hiker who couldn’t walk out. But this time, there was no helicopter. “We had to safely navigate a stretcher through a logjam across the river,” he says. “It was a technical problem we had to solve on the fly with the gear we had on hand.”
In both cases, the hikers were safely evacuated.
If you have a headlamp, a good knife, and a space blanket, you’ll be able to survive most things.
If you get yourself into a situation you can’t get out of, there are some basic things you can do to maximize your chance of being rescued. The first is the classic Scout motto: be prepared. Don’t underestimate the gear and supplies you’ll need, even if you’re adventuring in a popular, well-trafficked area. However, “If you have a headlamp, a good knife, and a space blanket, you’ll be able to survive most things,” Jon says.
You also need to know your environment. Depending on where you are, common logic may not apply. “In the Gorge, don’t just walk downhill if you get lost—that doesn’t work here. It’s a cliff.” So what do you do? “Stay put. Hunker down. Wait for rescue to come to you.”
Of course, the best thing you can do is avoid putting yourself in a situation to be rescued in the first place. “After the Eagle Creek fire, a big thing now is people going on trails that are closed and not maintained,” Will adds. “The area is overgrown, they can’t find the trail, and they end up walking downhill and getting lost.” The solution here is simple: obey the signs and stay out of closed areas.
But if you ever find yourself stranded in or around the Mount Hood National Forest, don’t panic. The Crag Rats are on their way.