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Man Falls Into St. Helens, Lives to Tell Tale

JEMS.com Editor's Note: Have you ever performed a rescue like the one described below? Send us an e-mail about it!

MOUNT ST. HELENS -- From his hospital bed in Portland, a banged-up but lucky John Slemp said he'd snowmobiled to that exact same spot on Mount St. Helens at least four times before Saturday.

But this time was special a welcome-home ride with his son, who is just back from serving a year in Iraq.

It turned out to be history-making.

Slemp, a longtime driver for UPS in the Portland area, is the first person known to have fallen into the crater of Mount St. Helens.

Saturday afternoon, after snowmobiling up to the west crater rim, he and his son, Jared, and a buddy parked their machines. Then Slemp and his son crawled on all fours to within 20 feet of the edge of a snow cornice that overhung the crater.

The cornice gave way. The buddy pulled Jared back, but Slemp fell 100 to 200 feet before landing on the crater's inside slope, then slid on his hands and knees to the bottom. The snow cushioned his fall, but he estimated he was traveling 40 mph at times while descending a total of 1,300 to 1,500 feet.

"It just gave way," Slemp said of the cornice. "I didn't have a chance to do anything."

But knowing he might be buried under snow, he did have the presence of mind to put a hand over his mouth to keep an air passage open and keep one hand up so he might be found.

"I was thinking clearly," added Slemp, 52. "I never really went into major shock."

Slemp, a Damascus, Ore., resident who has been riding snowmobiles for 20 years, was wearing a helmet, sturdy boots and riding bibs, which probably helped save his life, rescue officials said. It's legal to ride in that area, a rescue official said, but it's not recommended for anyone other than an expert.

Outside of closed areas, snowmobiles are allowed around the mountain when snow depths are sufficient to shelter the ground surface, said Peter Frenzen, Mount St. Helens monument scientist.

But people need to be cautious, he added. When the wind blows snow over a precipice or side of a ridge, it tends to cantilever out in a cornice or overhang.

"You have to determine where the real rim is and if you're on something substantial, not something hanging out in space," Frenzen said.

"I've encountered parties of climbers having lunch on cornices," he said.

Snowmobiling also is not a casual undertaking on Mount St. Helens. Riders can damage their machines or roll because the terrain is so steep, Frenzen said.

Slemp calls himself more extreme than the average trail rider. His "sled," or snowmobile, is built to climb hills.

When Slemp landed at the bottom, he said his first instinct was to try to climb back up. But loose snow carried him back down, so he tried to crawl over to a steam vent to stay warm.

Above the crater, his son and the friend called out on a battery-operated, two-way radio. A man in Mossyrock, Lewis County, happened to have the same kind of radio turned on and called the Sheriff's Office.

North Country Emergency Medical Service's volcano rescue team was contacted about 5:30 p.m. and flew two paramedics to the crater. They helped Slemp into their helicopter.

The rescue guys "were incredible," said Slemp. "I couldn't believe they got there that fast."

Tom McDowell, North Country EMS director, said Slemp "got his legs battered up, got rolled and bumped around a bit."

Slemp was flown to Yacolt, Clark County, then went by ambulance to a Portland hospital, where he learned he'd suffered torn knee ligaments.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com

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