An HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard, practices “touch and go” maneuvers at Bryant Army Airfield on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Dec. 17. (Photo by Sgt. Edward Eagerton)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON (JBER), Alaska -- An Alaska Air National Guard rescue team saved the life of a climber early this morning after he sustained traumatic injuries in a more than 100-foot fall around 7 p.m. Saturday. He was climbing with a team in the west side of the Neacola Mountains in Lake Clark National Park and Reserve.
The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at JBER was contacted by an air taxi service and notified of the stranded and injured climber. The RCC called to notify the Alaska State Troopers and National Park Service of the situation and to determine that additional assistance was needed to attempt the rescue.
The RCC coordinated the rescue, which was carried out by aircraft, aircrew and pararescuemen from the Air Guard’s elite rescue triad. An HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron and an HC-130J Combat King II aircraft from the 211th Rescue Squadron, each with a team of pararescuemen from the 212th Rescue Squadron, departed JBER late last night.
“We were in contact with a member of the climbing team who was using a Garmin handheld text device,” said Lt. Col. Keenan Zerkel, director of the RCC. “His ability to provide accurate and timely updates about the location and condition of the injured climber was extremely beneficial in being able to identify the climber’s location, especially under such unfavorable weather conditions,” he said.
The rescue crews were unable to see the climbers through cloud cover at their elevation, around 5,500 feet. After several attempts, the helicopter landed in a lower bowl of the mountain to allow pararescumen to climb up to the injured climber, who was suspended by rope and climbing gear to the nearly vertical rock wall on the mountain. Thick clouds and zero visibility impeded that option.
“The HC-130J refueled the Pave Hawk helicopter twice during the mission, and at one point, the pararescuemen on the [Combat King II] were preparing to conduct a high risk jump with a special litter designed for ground extraction. At that time, hoisting from the helo was not a viable option due to lack of visibility on the steep, rugged terrain,” said Zerkel.
As the team prepared for the jump, changes in cloud cover allowed the helo to reach the area over the climber. A pararescueman hoisted down to the injured man in a climbing harness and connected to the climber to hoist him back into the helicopter.
“This was an extremely high risk rescue due to the vertical nature of the mountain,” said Zerkel. “The helicopter had to get further above the climber than they normally would for a routine hoist maneuver, requiring a longer hoist line,” he said.
The steepness of the mountain also put the rotors of the helicopter unusually close to the rock wall, said Zerkel, although he said it was necessary in order to execute successful rescue of the climber.
The climber suffered severe trauma and was in critical condition. He was flown directly to Anchorage and released to medical personnel at Providence Alaska Medical Center at 6 a.m. this morning.
The RCC, 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons were awarded one save for this mission.