Fort Lewis Reservists Conduct Mount Rainier Rescue Drill
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT LEWIS, Wash., Aug. 29, 2007 An Army Reserve helicopter crew lowered National Park Service rangers to practice plucking an injured climber from an 8,600-foot ridge on Washington’s Mount Rainier yesterday in a training mission much like real-life rescues the soldiers are routinely called upon to perform. (Video)
Soldiers of A Company, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, along with rescue workers from the Mount Rainier National Park Service, perform simulated rescue operations on Mount Rainier Aug. 27. A rescue worker is lowered down from a CH-47D Chinook helicopter. Photo by Maj. Hillary Anne Luton, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It was a glorious afternoon as aviators from Company A, 5th Battalion, 59th Aviation Regiment, dispatched a CH-47D Chinook helicopter to the mountain, which towers over their airfield, to exercise skills they and their Park Service partners could be called on to use at a moment’s notice.
The unit, nicknamed the “Hookers” in reference to the three cargo hooks beneath their helicopters, has worked with the National Park Service since 1990 to conduct high-altitude search-and-rescue missions on Mount Rainier, said Army Maj. William Wynn, the unit’s commander.
As many as 10,000 climbers tackle the 14,410-foot active volcano every year, the vast majority between May and September, National Park Service officials said. About half of those climbers successfully reach the summit.
But even the most spectacular mountain conditions can deteriorate quickly. Fierce storms and white-out conditions that seemingly appear out of nowhere claim an average of three climbers a year. “It can be a pretty hostile and unforgiving environment,” Wynn said.
When a climber goes missing or the Park Service gets word of a climber who’s stranded or injured at higher altitudes than standard helicopters can fly, the Hookers’ crews step -- make that fly -- in.
Crews stand on alert throughout the climbing season, ready to respond to a Park Service call within an hour, Wynn said. All understand that every minute counts for a climber in trouble at high altitude.
When the Park Service calls, crews muster at their hangar, prepping the aircraft with the special gear they’ll need: climbing ropes, baskets, hoists and oxygen. Once airborne, they race to a designated base camp on the mountain to rendezvous with climbing rangers from the Park Service.
Operating at high altitudes, particularly in ever-changing mountain conditions, poses challenges to rescuers as well as to climbers, explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Agee, a pilot trainer for the unit. Turbulent air can make aircraft buck to updrafts and downdrafts. Winds can pick up, and visibility can plummet in the blink of an eye. Low oxygen levels often require crews to wear oxygen masks.
Recognizing these difficulties, Wynn sends only his most experienced pilots on search-and-rescue missions. Among them is Agee, who first flew Chinooks during the Vietnam War and has 20 years of SAR experience under his belt.
Another is Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Scott Salkovics, who brings not only extensive flying experience, but also mountaineering experience to the mission. Salkovics has climbed nearby Mount St. Helens 43 times. The one time he attempted Mount Rainier, he got “blown off the mountain” at 10,000 feet, giving him a unique respect for the mountain.
That failed attempt also gave Salkovics an appreciation of the contribution he and his fellow Hookers are making. “I believe in the mission. There’s definitely a need,” he said. “It’s nice to know if you get into trouble, there’s someone trained to come get you.”
During yesterday’s training mission, the crews flew to Kautz Helibase to pick up the park rangers, just as they would during a real rescue mission. From there, they proceeded to the site of the injured climber, represented by a 160-pound dummy they lowered onto a glacier-covered area on the mountain’s north side.
Hovering at about 50 feet, Army Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Rhoads, a flight engineer, helped lower the Park Service rescuers on a cable device known as a jungle penetrator. They wrapped the dummy in a sleeping bag to protect it from the freezing winds whipped up by the helicopter’s prop wash, then secured it onto a litter.
Rhoads and another flight engineer worked together to raise the litter, then the rescuers, slowing their ascent as they neared the aircraft to prevent them from swinging into it.
Mike Gauthier, supervisory climbing ranger, called the support the reservists bring to the Mount Rainier National Park Service “immeasurable.” The park could never dedicate an aircraft with the capabilities of the Chinook to the SAR mission, he said, and the Hookers bring vast experience to the mission. “And at the same time, you’re seeing federal agencies working together to perform a valuable public service,” he said.
Fellow climbing ranger Andy Anderson praised the close training arrangement between the Park Service and the Army Reserve. “This is something we all practice on a regular basis and always hope we never have to use,” he said. “But thanks to training like this, we know that if we need it, we’re prepared.”
This year has been a good one on Mount Rainer. With just a month left of the prime climbing season, no climber has yet been killed. The Hookers have been called out to support just two search-and-rescue missions; one that was aborted after the climber was found safe, and the other in which they airlifted a climber with a dislocated shoulder from 11,000 feet.
Regardless of how much they use their search-and-rescue skills on the mountain, unit members say those skills paid off in a big way during a deployment to Iraq and when they supported hurricanes Katrina and Rita relief efforts in 2005.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Bovey, a unit instructor pilot, compared the landscape on Mount Rainier to that in which he flew while supporting relief efforts after a 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and during a deployment to Afghanistan. “Getting experience flying in environments like that is just invaluable,” he said.
“This is a win-win all around,” agreed Rhoads. “It’s one of those situations where everybody benefits.”
Like his fellow reservists, Rhoads considers himself lucky to be part of the SAR mission. “You get to help somebody go home to their family when you pluck them off the mountain alive,” he said. “That’s the biggest gratification of what we do.”