The Eugene Mountain Rescue team recovers the bodies of two men and the wreckage of their plane
Patience paid off Saturday for a mountain-rescue crew who came to Mount McLoughlin to recover the bodies of two Medford men who died in a Monday plane crash.
The Eugene Mountain Rescue team had to wait three hours for fog to lift before they could be airlifted to the crash site, but when a helicopter finally deposited them near the wreckage, the wind and snow that hampered earlier recovery efforts had disappeared.
Local search-and-rescue volunteers had tried Monday and Tuesday to reach the bodies of Ed Dunlap and Monte Landon, but they were turned back by steep terrain, stormy weather and a thin layer of slippery snow on loose rocks. Warm weather and midweek showers melted the snow, and winds were light when the helicopter deposited the six mountaineers on a relatively flat spot about 700 feet below the downed Cessna 172.
From there, they walked up a steep gully filled with loose rock, sand and gravel to the wreckage, about 800 vertical feet below the mountain's 9,495-foot summit.
We were able to walk right up to it without climbing gear, said Tim McCall of Eugene, who led the recovery team.
McCall said the mountaineers found the plane largely intact at the base of a prominent lava bluff on the mountain's northeast side. They wrapped a sling around the wreckage, enabling pilot Kyle Witham of Lakeview to lift it off the mountain.
While the mountaineers worked to secure the wreckage and the passengers' remains for removal, clouds refused to lift at the paved parking lot near Highway 140 that was to serve as the unloading zone. The ground crew decided to move the recovery base to higher ground to give Witham better conditions for depositing his load.
The ground crew moved to Fourmile Lake, about 600 feet higher than the parking lot, where they found clear skies, light winds and plenty of landing space. The lake feeds valley irrigation canals, and at summer's end the water level had dropped enough to provide a broad, dry landing zone on the south shore near a Forest Service campground.
Witham brought the plane and human remains to the lake about 2:20 p.m., then brought down a second load of smaller debris. The recovery crew came off the mountain in groups of two, just as they went up.
We got basically everything, McCall said a few minutes after he came off the mountain.
If somebody went up there they could find a few nuts and bolts and some little pieces of fiberglass about the size of a silver dollar.
That was good news for Kent Russell, district ranger for the Klamath Ranger District on the Winema National Forest. Russell was on the site for the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that the motorized, mechanical aspect of the recovery operation was kept to a minimum to preserve the undisturbed natural character of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, which includes Mount McLoughlin and the crash site.
Russell noted the federal Wilderness Act generally prohibits mechanized activity in designated areas, but helicopters and other mechanized equipment may be used to recover human remains or if loss of life is imminent.
Russell said Mount McLoughlin is the most popular site in the wilderness, which straddles the Cascade crest in the Winema and Rogue River national forests.
There were 21 people going up the (summit) trail Saturday, he said.
The wrecked airplane will be hauled to a hangar in Independence, near Salem, where investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will try to determine what led to the crash and whether mechanical or structural problems could have been a factor.
Jackson County sheriff's Lt. Dewey Patten said the airplane's insurance company typically pays the cost of recovering wreckage. Patten said flight time for the helicopter cost &
36;1,360 per hour.
McCall said the recovery team was glad the gentle weather lasted long enough to get a helicopter ride off the mountain. They've had to walk out from other missions when weather deteriorated or a helicopter developed mechanical problems.
We're going to be able to eat a hot dinner, he said, and we're not going to have to sleep up there tonight.