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THE IDEA MAN : Sierra Madre Mountaineer Uses His Head So Rescuers Use Less Muscle

February 16, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

If you've recently helped carry a 200-pound victim with a broken leg down a narrow, rocky trail, you probably owe one to Russell Anderson.

Back in the days when being on a search-and-rescue team often meant tracking victims down in the wilderness, then using sheer muscle to haul them out, Anderson got to thinking. A longtime Sierra Madre Search & Rescue Team member, Anderson is fit but not particularly muscular, and he has a bad back. Hauling heavy loads in the mountains--that's agony, he says.

"Hit a narrow spot in the trail, and only two guys can carry the litter," says Anderson, 56, a slim, talkative man, with short gray hair cut into what he calls an "Ollie North." "It took a couple of gorillas."

Machine Shop

So Anderson, who operates a tree service out of his Sierra Madre home, started looking for solutions. What if, Anderson wondered, he could fit a wheel to a standard Stokes litter and turn the wire stretcher device into a kind of back country wheelbarrow? Somebody had once tried rigging a bicycle wheel to a litter, of course. But it tended to veer out of control on the rough spots. Unless it was being used on a paved road, the device was useless.

Anderson disappeared into the little machine shop he has equipped behind his garage, and, a few days later, he came out with the Russ Anderson litter wheel. It was a fat wheel from an all-terrain vehicle, about two feet in diameter with thick rubber cleats, and it was fastened to an aluminum clamp, which could be easily slipped onto the bottom slats of the litter.

It worked phenomenally well, say Anderson's admirers.

In the 11 years since Anderson developed the idea, the litter wheel has become an indispensable item in the arsenal of mountain rescue equipment. "We couldn't do without it," says Arnold Gaffrey, a Sierra Madre team member and a past president of the Mountain Rescue Assn., a national umbrella organization for rescue squads. "It's taken a back-breaking job and made it a do-able job."

Ever since he first fell in love with the wilderness about 40 years ago, Anderson has been combining a brilliant grasp of mechanics and an aversion to hard labor to come up with labor-saving or lifesaving mountaineering equipment.

Six years ago, the Seattle Manufacturing Co. made a deal with Anderson, who never went past high school, to market his ideas.

Now all Anderson has to do is gather in the royalties (modest ones, he insists) and come up with new ideas.

They seem to come in a steady stream. "Every time I'm out there, either backpacking or working on a rescue operation, I'm always dreaming about how to make the equipment better or simpler," he says. "Any money I make is kind of secondary."

Pensive Gaze

Things seem to get miraculously transformed under Anderson's pensive gaze, fellow rescue team members say. An ice ax, a standard mountain climbing device, suddenly acquires a rubber hand grip at one end. The Stokes litter gets broken into two easily-packed parts that can be reattached in the field. A winch used for hauling victims up mountainsides is mounted on a custom-built platform.

By now, the pieces of equipment manufactured with the Russ Anderson stamp include an array of sturdy but lightweight mountaineering pulleys, an "edge roller" to reduce the friction on ropes being pulled over rocky outcroppings, and a specially modified "figure-8 descender," which helps to reduce accidents to climbers or rescuers while they're rappelling down ropes.

Anderson builds the prototypes in his shop, which includes metal lathes and a milling machine, and ships them to Seattle for mass production. The products are sold either through catalogue orders or in mountaineering specialty shops.

"He's been among the most influential innovators of technical rescue equipment in the United States," says Tom Vines, the Montana-based editor of Response Magazine, published by the National Assn. for Search & Rescue. "He's not only developed new technology but he's taken previously existing technology and brought it to the point where it's easier to use and safer for the user."

Anderson reacts to such kudos with embarrassment. "You go to a national conference with him," says Steve Millenbach, president of the Sierra Madre rescue team, "and you hear people saying, 'God, you're Russ Anderson?' and Russ will say, 'Oh, me?' "

Consults Friends

Anderson often consults fellow team members and friends on his inventions, he acknowledges--people like Norman Batterson, an aerospace researcher who belongs to the Altadena Search & Rescue Team. And he uses ideas that come from mountaineering or outdoorsman's lore, Anderson says.

"I've copied concepts that have been used for years," Anderson insists.

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