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Friday, May 11, 2012


Greetings to those who read my tales of adventure and becoming who I am today. I appreciate you all and I would love it if you shared my blog with others.

The past week has been very busy with the increasingly frantic preparations for the Mensa convention in Reno this July. I am sure that there are those who think that everyone just shows up to conventions and the stuff happens auto-magically. I would guesstimate that there are probably one thousand hours of preparation for every hour of operation for a Mensa Annual Gathering which runs for 5 days and hosts 2,000 people. The AG Committee works for about 5 years to make their event happen. And somehow, it does.

The weather for beautiful downtown Fallon, where people have long memories and kids play ball, will be a fully sun covered sky, with 80+ Fahrenheits and very little wind to speak of. The rain will not be found here.

Fridays have become all day events with Mr S. Lunch, shopping, taking care of broken this or lost that, and then an outing in the surrounding county somewhere. It is the highlight of his week and an exercise in being patient for me. It is the right thing to do.

The story for today is true of course, but when I read the words as I place them here for all to read, it feels like it was another lifetime and odd that I was so young, fit and crazy fearless. It was me, but it seems like someone else at the same time. Memories are like that. Read and enjoy!


During my tour of duty in Alaska (1975-78), I was tasked with many assignments and completed numerous training courses. I mean really, what are you going to do when you have to work every day for the U.S. Army, right? Train and train some more. I did all of my military duties, completed advanced Air Traffic Control courses, ran, hit the weights, martial arts practice, climbing skills training and advanced first aid for combatants. I got certified as; a load master, a forward supply distribution specialist, and aircraft mishap investigator. I competed in the Biathalon (ski/snowshoe/shoot) and won both years I competed. I did everything that I could find to do to keep busy.

I often went as the extra crew member on flights around Alaska. The fixed wing guys liked to have me aboard because I could figure weight and balance for their loads and file their flight plans for them. The helicopter guys knew me well from the airport and I flew with them a lot when they needed a first aid or climbing guy who wasn't afraid to go out on the skid or repel from the bird if needed. I was the resident crazy who knew the frequencies and phone numbers to reduce time in an emergency.

The Fall of 1976 was bringing cold winds and chilly nights down at sea level and promising to show me what winter was all about. It was my second winter in Alaska so I had a lot better idea of what to expect and really wasn't afraid of it. I had taken over the Cold Weather Survival Instructor job as an additional duty, everybody had an additional duty, (at least one) and I saw it as a fun job to take on. I got to train aircrews to survive in the winter wonderland and play in the snow, how cool was that!

My day shift was over and I was briefing the oncoming supervisor about the flights and incoming weather system. Over the radio comes a request for me personally from the pilot of a UH-1 helicopter which was cranking up next to the Operations building. I answered the radio and the aircraft commander asked if I was able to "take a ride" with them, I answered in the affirmative and said that I would meet them at the hangar in a few minutes. The reply was, "No time, we will come to you." 

I yelled "Call my wife" to my relief and he replied "Got it!" Down the stairs I went on the run, not having any idea what was so important, but knowing by the voice of the pilot that this wasn't a drill.

The bird was at the end of our access road to the runway by the time I could run there. I was onboard and in the air practically before my legs knew to quit running. As we turned out northbound and started to climb I was briefed about the situation. A climber was stuck on a ledge, or more precisely, just above a ledge, on Mt McKinley. So the situation was: Unknown injuries and the victim not accessible by climbers in time to get the person off the mountain. Complicating matters was the storm cell moving in which threatened to shut down any kind of rescue.

As we flew to the mountain which always seemed to be just right "there" as we looked at it to the north of the base, I was gaining more perspective and awe. We had approximately 160 air miles to our target and that was an hour and a half in the Huey, way better than driving which was five to six hours by road. That mountain just kept getting bigger and higher as we flew towards it.

I conferred with the pilot and suggested that we needed to have a fuel truck dispatched from Fort Greely at Delta Junction to give us some flight time on the mountain. It was going to be windy, nasty cold and if the storm moved in, white out conditions. We couldn't afford the extra flying time to go to the fuel; it needed to come to us. They were all over the assignment at Ft Greely

It was about nine years earlier that seven climbers had died in the same area we were headed to; the deceptive West Buttress. It was deceptive in that it appeared to be an easy climb, a “walk in the park”, but that was only true when the weather was 100% cooperative, which was a really small percentage of the time. While most climbers went in the sensible time of the year for ascent between April and June, it was not unheard of for some to try and gain a reputation by doing a "winter" climb in the fall. It was a bad move and most serious climbers didn't want anything to do with a climber or team that would try a summer climb in the face of winter weather. It was simply the wrong preparation, with the wrong equipment. If you try to fool with Mother Nature, she will slap you silly.

The pilot was in communication with the Alaska State Troopers who were escorting the fuel truck, (the driver's idea) and through the trooper we connected to the Park Ranger from Talkeetna who had driven out to the jump off point where the vehicles were parked. The target climber was between the base of the West Buttress at 11,000ft and Windy Corner at 13,500 ft. That was both good and bad. Good because the lower the altitude, the more oxygen for the climber and myself, as well as less difficulty for the helicopter to operate. And it was bad, because that section was notorious for really screwball winds. You wouldn't think it was possible for the wind to blow every direction at once, but I had heard the stories. Knowing that we were going there and a storm was coming we had to do some serious fuel/operating time calculations and I was on the radio getting a brand new weather update. It said; bad weather by midnight at the latest.

Because of the great response by the fuel truck crew (and their quick thinking to get a Trooper escort), they were way ahead of where we had expected them to be able to reach. They were winding that tanker of theirs up and loving the excitement of it. Their progress westbound allowed us to take a more direct route and we rendezvoused with them right on the highway. After filling the bird up, we had them continue to the park ranger's location so we had more fuel waiting when we got clear of the mountain slopes. This would allow us more operational time to actually get the climber off of the rock face.

I was so very glad to have that stop to make “yellow snow”. I didn't have a chance to go before we left and I had consumed an entire pot of coffee on my shift in the tower. My fellow crew members had great time laughing at me bailing out of the aircraft and running past the fuel truck to go.

We got airborne and back in communication with the trooper; they had an update for us as reported by a small airplane which made several passes by the climber in distress. The climber was in fact, upside down, with a boot hooked to the rope and was conscious and able to wave. Best guess at altitude was just below 12,000 feet. Air is pretty thin there, easy to get exhausted and goofy. The flight crew has oxygen to breathe onboard so they will be fine, but I was the one going out on the line. And the climber had been out there for a long time already. We had no idea about the gear this person had on them.

The Park Ranger was a sharp fellow and had identified the climber by the color of the climbing clothes and pack. He routinely makes detailed notes about those climbing the mountains, but especially so during the “wrong” season. Our climber was an American female, 35 years old from Portland, Maine and was a novice climber with numerous lower altitude mountains to her credit. She was carrying an emergency oxygen cylinder and was a marathon runner, 5'3" and 120lbs. This was all great news to me. I was happy to have a smaller female subject to possibly have to lift and carry, as opposed to her companion climbers who were both over 6' and weighed in at 200lbs and 185lbs. At that time I was 5'8" and 140lbs and while I could fireman's carry the 200lb fellow, I really didn't want to have to dead pull that much weight hanging off the rock face or dangling from a helicopter. The fact that she was fit, experienced and somewhat prepared made me feel a lot better about the outcome.

Now I had a pressing question and spoke before the pilot could say the same thing, "Where the Hell are her climbing partners?" The Ranger said that the plane had reported seeing red climbing ropes and a small tent at 15,000 ft all staked and roped down. That would be the area at the base of the headwall and an OK place to hunker down to ride out a storm, IF you had the supplies and time. Based on what we knew, I made the suggestion that our stranded climber was on her way down the mountain, not up.

So now we knew why we were called in, the report came from a passing aircraft, not a climber and there wasn't a team around to do a conventional climbing rescue, especially before the incoming weather, plus the altitude and the tiny detail that our climber was hanging upside down with unknown injuries.

We were crossing the Ranger's location and I wish I could say that I was taking in the breathtaking view, but actually I was busy rigging up in the harness the crew chief brought for me. My own was in my gear bag at home all nicely adjusted and ready for use. Not so with this rig. I was very glad to have the crewman to help as I adjusted each of the straps and put an extra strap which keeps me nice and snug no matter which way I yank on it. I liked to do that so I was secure when upside down. He did have the forethought to grab a climbing bag from one of the fireman at our base who was on duty and kept his in his car. I had a climbing hammer, pitons and carabiners, plus two hundred feet of climbing rope. I had heavy mountain boots and regular fatigues on with an unlined field jacket, fortunately I did have long johns on. I borrowed a pair of nomex flight gloves and gave the crewchief my regular leather gloves with the wool liner. Mine were warmer, but his were more dexterous and I needed the fine motor skills ability.

I must say that my pilot and co-pilot were all business and focused on their job as we spotted our target and began an approach, because the wind was howling and it was a rough location and honestly I wasn't sure that anyone would be able to fly close enough to get to the climber, but they got us close enough to look the situation over and see that we could not land the helo anywhere above the climber. Climbing up to the spot where the woman was hanging, especially without the correct clothes and gear didn't thrill me.

Choice B would be me dangling on a line a doing a “grab” to pick the person off the wall, like we would do from a tree or a rooftop. Problem was; we didn't have much clearance for the rotor blades. Banging a blade against the mountain would mean that nobody survives the rescue and that wouldn't go over well at home.

It was time for some creative thinking and crazy behavior, which is why I was there, right? OK, I could see that she had an arm dangling and wasn't using it. I could guess with some certainty that the leg she was hanging by would have some problem. I was going to need the “Stokes”, which is a metal frame litter which you strap your victim into to transport them. But once again, we couldn't get close enough above to lower the stokes down to where it needed to be.

The crewchief said, "We need Superman to fly over there and pick her off the wall." “That's it!” I said. He and I were joking but the idea was right, I would fasten the climbing rope in the bag to the back of my harness and run the end through a ring on the floor of the helicopter so the crewchief could hold me. The pilot could take me above the climber to last anchor point and I would jump to the rope hanging there, if I missed, the rope on my back would keep me from falling and the crewman could pull me back in. If I made the jump safely I would hook on and then the rope on my back could be secured to the stokes and I could pull it up to the injured climber and secure her into it.

The pilot said, "You really are crazy aren't you." I said no problem, it is a good plan and we have a safety rope, just get me close enough so that I don't really have to fly to reach the rope. We geared up and got above the rope anchor point and I jumped... too bad I missed and fell to my death. Oh, so you ARE reading!

OK, so I made the jump and to tell the truth I wasn't paying any attention to how far up we were, I was really worried about the rotor blades hitting the rocks, because if that happened it was definitely game over. The pilot was awesome! He got us right up to the wall and then rocked the bird so the skid swung closer and I jumped with extra momentum from that swing. It was nearly too much help and I had momentary visions of bouncing off of the wall, but I didn't and I grabbed the rope like the flying monkey that I was and snapped onto it. The unhooking of the carabiner from my back was a bit more fun than I wanted, but I got it and passed the rope through the anchor point and secured the ring again. Once that was done I quickly pulled out another piton and pounded that bad boy in good and solid so we had a bit more anchor support.

I signaled for the stokes to be eased out of the bird and lowered to the end of what the crewman could safely do, and then release it. It swung over to the wall and stopped nicely with hardly much of a jolt at all. Then as we had discussed they backed the helicopter away from the wall to reduce the blast and wind chill it created. It wasn't as if the pilot could just park the bird though, they were getting pounded and pushed by the wind coming off the mountain.

Rigged up and ready, I walked myself down the face like I was going for a stroll and I must admit I was pretty amused at the situation. When I reached the point immediately above the woman, I had to say to her, "Madam, do you come here often?" I was so happy to hear a laugh come from her, which told me both that she was conscious and fairly coherent that I laughed with her. I hammered another piton in and secured to it while I ran the rope for the stokes through it and rigged for a secure transfer.

As I worked I kept up a running conversation with the lady and learned that her right arm was indeed useless and she had a lot of pain in her right leg. The hooks on the laces of her boot had buried into the climbing rope and snagged, causing her to flip during her rappel and she had bashed into the rock face a couple of times and come to a halt upside down. Her weight was actually being supported by her climbing harness and I was able to unhook her boot and rotate her back upright again. She screamed a very small scream when the leg swung down and upon examination, it appeared to be fractured. The right arm problem was pretty obvious to those of us who have had one, she had a dislocated right shoulder. By all rights, she should have been yelling her head off from the pain, but she was one tough lady.

I got the stokes up and secured, and rolled the climber up on her left side and eased the stokes in behind her. I then eased her out from the wall and into the stokes. Once inside the litter, I cut a hole in the bottom of her right jacket pocket and jammed her right hand and arm into the inside of her jacket and then wrapped her with tape around her arm and chest to trap the arm against her. I took the climbing hammer from her belt and taped the head to her boot with the handle going up the leg and wrapped the handle and leg with tape. If it wasn't for the seriously cold temperatures and the ridiculous position we were in I would have checked for other injuries, but honestly It didn't seem to be a priority. I strapped her into the stokes and began her descent down the remaining one thousand feet of elevation. I was very happy to have the already pounded in pitons to hook to on the way down; all I had to do was change anchor points.

While I was busy doing this bundling and wrapping stuff it had gotten a bit darker outside and a lot colder. The pilot had turned on his landing light and was keeping it on us as we descended the wall of the West Buttress. Once I got her down to the base of the wall I was able to come down much more quickly and was really happy to stand on my own legs on the ground again. The pilot was able to do a one skid landing on a slope a short ways down and the crewchief came running and then we were able to pick up the stokes and quickly get it aboard the helicopter and get away from that mountain.

A short flight later we were standing on the highway again, with our trusty fuel truck drivers and the headlights of the Alaska State Troopers to illuminate our refueling.

Our climbing victim told us that she was indeed on her way down and her male partners were going to continue the ascent. She had reconsidered the sanity of the climb with the storm coming in and minimal supplies and decided to drop out of the climb while she could. The accident had happened early that morning and she was spotted about noon and had more than one plane buzz her as she hung from the rope. Knowing that she had been spotted she was reassured that help was on the way so she tried to conserve her energy and be patient.

After refueling, we flew our guest to Anchorage, where she was transferred to an ambulance and taken to Providence Hospital. The good folks at Providence Hospital did give her a good going over and found nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises besides her shoulder and leg. They put her shoulder back in place and put a cast on her leg and she was ready to leave. She got a wheelchair ride to the front door and got up and walked out to her waiting cab. As far as I know she left the next day.

Because she didn't die on the mountain she wasn't even a statistic. Not a word about the other two climbers as to whether they made the summit or not, but they weren't still up there in April so they did something.

The fuel truck drivers got an excellent letter of commendation for their speedy response and quick thinking, I know because I wrote it and the pilot signed it. The Park Ranger had his policy of recording details about climbers made into a rule and his name was mentioned to the Head of the National Park Service in Washington D.C. The pilot, co-pilot and crew chief each got an Army Commendation medal for their part in the rescue. I wasn't even on the aircraft manifest, I wasn't a crew member. So I didn't get any awards or letters, but I didn’t care, I had the most fun of the four of us and we saved a life. It was all good.

Come to think of it, I did get something out of the deal...

I got yelled at for coming home late! No one called my wife to let her know where I was.

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