ROSBURG - Bob Saari and his wife, Becky, of Rosburg had planned to spend a quiet Sunday evening, Oct. 17, at home after returning from a church youth group meeting at the Naselle Assembly of God Church. A phone call from Tim Hill, owner of Danger Tree Removal of Astoria, changed their plans.
Hill told Bob his services as a high climber were needed to rescue a man stuck high in a tree above the cliffs near Cannon Beach, Ore. The incredulous Saari didn't immediately grasp the notion that his services were needed to rescue a person who was stuck high in a tree, in the dark, on a less-than-perfect-weather night.
Becky said, "Bob thought that they were talking about a cat at first because that is usually why he is called."
But no, this wasn't a cat, it was a human paraglider, Dr. Charles Phillips, a 50-year-old emergency room physician from Portland's Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital.
Phillips, a 12-year veteran paraglider, had been gliding over the ocean and beach of the Cannon Beach area when a violent updraft interrupted his landing and carried him 300 feet into the air. Barely in control, and unable to come back to the beach for a safe landing, Phillips crash-landed into the limbs of a huge spruce tree in Ecola State Park high above the beach and ocean at about 4:30 p.m., not long before darkness set in.
The problem then became getting down from the tree, where Phillips was suspended an estimated 125-130 feet above the ground. Unable to reach the safer location afforded by the trunk of the tree, Phillips and his paraglider hung there like, well, like a toy kite caught high in a tree, but with a human attached.
Phillips would have normally had an emergency rope and other gear that could have helped him to rappel down but that gear had been stolen from his car. He was quoted as saying that he realized the rope wouldn't have been of much help because it would have been about 90 feet short of getting him to the ground.
While Phillips hung there, his gliding companion had landed safely and called 911 on his cell phone. Quickly, potential rescuers arrived in the form of Cannon Beach Fire and Rescue personnel, a Coast Guard helicopter, a Medix Ambulance, and a Tualatin Fire and Rescue rig. All of that personnel and equipment were of little use, however, as the prop wash from the chopper threatened to dislodge Phillips and his crippled paraglider from their perilous perch, and the ground observers were unsure of a way to reach him.
Finally, after darkness was closing in, and Phillips had wrapped himself in his chute for some protection from the elements, the people on the ground called for Hill of the tree removal company. Hill called Saari, the veteran tree climber, whom he described as "a master at what he does."
The Saaris arrived at the Ecola State Park scene about 10:15 p.m., almost six hours after Phillips had been caught in the tree. With the lights from above provided by the chopper and from below by the ground crew nearly blinding him, Saari first sized up the situation and then climbed for close to a half an hour to get above Phillips.
The veteran tree climber used a "flip line" to climb the 5-foot diameter spruce tree up to the first limbs which were 80 feet above the ground. "That's the biggest tree that I have climbed in awhile," Saari said. When he reached Phillips' level about 15 minutes later, Phillips related that Saari casually asked him, "How ya doing?" Saari related that Phillips was very calm for one who had been left hanging high in the air for several hours.
Saari climbed to a height which he estimated to be at about 140 feet, so that he was above the stuck glider. Saari then rappelled down to a limb above Phillips and walked out on the big spruce limb where he could get a line to the doctor. He had Phillips attach a line to his gliding harness, which was accomplished with some difficulty. Saari had taken that position so he could assist the doctor in getting ready for his descent.
The ground crew was then able to lower Phillips to the ground, cold and tired but unharmed. Phillips reached the ground at 11:30 p.m., seven hours after first becoming caught in the tree.
There is one other aspect of Saari's rescue climb that makes it all the more remarkable. Six days before this incident, he was hit by a falling snag which knocked him out, badly bruised the left side of his body, injured his sternum, his hip, his shoulders, his ribs and cut his chin. When he was contacted for this story, Saari couldn't be interviewed until later as he had to leave for a physical therapy session. The accident kept him off work for over a week while he healed and received treatment.
Saari said later, "I was sort of pacing myself [in climbing the tree during the rescue]. I couldn't afford to breathe too deep because it hurt too much. The tree was quite big and I had a little trouble flipping the line up around the tree because of my ribs and bruises."
Saari reported that the crew of people at the site of the accident, including a climber who hadn't climbed big trees, were not able to figure out how to get to the stuck doctor. "Climbing big trees takes a good technique in order to do it, and I have had quite a bit of experience climbing big trees," Saari laughed.
When asked how the ropes were used in order to get carry out the rescue, Saari replied, "If it would have been daylight, I could have used a big slingshot that I use to shoot a small line to, then pull a larger line over the same limb that I used to put the rope around to lower the doctor. My sore ribs would have prevented me from pulling back the slingshot and someone else would have had to do that. Since it was dark, I had to bring the ropes up by climbing the tree. After the doctor was lowered, I used the lines to rappel down from the tree."
An improvement in the weather was one thing that worked in Saari's favor while completing the climb. "It had been quite rainy and windy earlier and the doctor said that he had become a little nervous while the wind was blowing him and the limbs about," said Saari.
Saari, a 5 foot 3 inches tall, 130-pound, 52-year-old lifelong resident of Rosburg and a 1970 graduate of Naselle High School, has been a logger since he left college due to lack of money after one year of studying forestry. He said that the late Dennis Long was an influence on his early development as a logger. He began his tree climbing in 1977 when he was working for Weyerhaeuser at Grays River, and he was a faller on a tree pulling crew.
Saari said, "We would put lines on trees that were leaning too badly to fall the regular way and then we would pull them as we fell them. Larry Larson, who lived in Skamokawa at the time, was the climber who taught me lots about climbing, especially big tree climbing. Climbing big trees involves learning the techniques to do it right."
It was probably a natural progression that the athletic Saari began entering speed climbing competitions in 1983 and continued for 20 seasons. "I didn't ever win anything really spectacular - I took lots of seconds and thirds in open competition - the long-legged guys seemed to have an advantage in speed climbing," Saari laughed. "I quit competing a couple of years ago, and now I climb some on my job with Seal River Logging, which is owned by Steve Wirkkala, and in climbing jobs when people need me to climb. This is the first time that I ever had to get a person out of a tree."
Saari did well enough in a past climbing competition that he performed in places like Disneyland and in states across the country. He also began a 10-year relationship of performing at the Southern Illinois State Fair where they began introducing him as "The Human Squirrel" because of his ability to maneuver his compact frame on the climbing pole.
Those exhibitions and competitions are not part of Saari's current plans as he confines his climbing to his work. "I have a rope set up in my house where all of the kids have climbed and played," he said. The Saaris have six girls ranging from the age of 4 to 26.
He also invents and tests his own equipment at home, equipment which he uses when he is called for tree removal jobs, tree topping, rescuing a cat - or voluntarily rescuing a person, that rescue coming even when his body is aching and injured as it was when Bob Saari performed what, to him, was a relatively simple task.
- The Daily Astorian contributed to this report