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Those Who Serve: Sheriff Joe Wampler finds lost hikers and climbers

Over the past four decades, the retired Hood River sheriff has flown thousands of rescue missions to find lost hikers and climbers.

Pat Dooris

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For his Those Who Serve reports, KGW’s Pat Dooris spends time with people who have truly made an impact over the course of their lives. They come from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds, but they share a common sense of purpose and service. For this profile, Dooris spent time with a man who has spent his career helping those in need, often in the most dangerous and unpredictable wilderness conditions. Meet Joe Wampler, the former longtime Hood River County Sheriff, and literally a life-saver to many over the years.

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — The cell phone video catches a single engine plane flying so close to the top of Mt. Hood that it seems it might actually scrape the top peaks.

"Wow! That looks scary!" says a voice. It belongs to someone on the Portland Mountain Rescue team.

It's the summer of 2018, and as they begin a search for a missing climber, the team watches as the plane flies over and over again.

"Jesus Christ!" the voice says again.

Up there in the cockpit sits the retired sheriff from Hood River County, Joe Wampler.

He had spotted a climber who threatened suicide but was still very much alive when Wampler saw him.

Wampler let searcher Steve Rollins and the ground crews know.

"It was a dangerous time of year to be climbing the mountain, and I didn’t really want to climb the mountain that time of year unless we needed to; we didn’t even know if somebody was up there," Rollins said.

But the pilot showed them the climber was there and so up they went.

The result: An incredible moment hours later when an Oregon National Guard helicopter landed high on the mountain, with only its back loading ramp touching the snow, to pick up the rescue team and climber.

It was deemed safer than trying to climb down the mountain in the heat of the day when dangerous rocks and ice chunks come loose and fly down the mountainside.

The retired sheriff's flying skills are legendary.

"I don't know any pilot like Wampler," Rollins said with a laugh. "You know, when I saw him flying over the mountain like that, I would have thought he was trying to crop-dust the summit. That was crazy!"

Maybe for someone else, but Joe Wampler is no ordinary pilot.

He's taken to the sky thousands of times over four decades to help find lost individuals on the mountain and in the wilderness of the Columbia River Gorge.

It's a world-class playground that sometimes turns dangerous. And when it does, Wampler is often the guy who shows up to help.

"Lost people are fun to find," he said. "Because they're thankful."

He understands their fear and is driven to bring them out safely.

But he adds, "It's just fun to watch people's reactions. That's what, from Day 1, when I was a teenager, to just this week, the same reaction. I mean [they're thankful], [some can't] pay anything, and nobody cares about that. They thank you, that's real."