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Choreographing a real cliff-hanger rescue

Rangers in Alaska learn to push the limits in saving climbers - a

There he was, a park ranger dangling from a 200-foot rope attached to a helicopter, floating through the vast wilderness of Denali National Park.

Billy Shott, a muscly man with small, intense eyes, was being flown up to 10,000 feet to rescue an injured climber - an experienced mountaineer who'd been hurt while scaling a wall of ice.

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Ferrying the ranger to Mt. Hunter was a special high-altitude helicopter - one with a hollowed out tail and lightweight fuel. Above, a C-130 plane provided communications. Below, two backup climbing teams inched toward the site. At the command center, some 30 staffers monitored radios.

All this to save one man.

Indeed, these are the elements of a modern-day rescue - a regular occurrence in America's national parks, especially now as climbing season reaches its summer peak.

Today's rescues are a mix of low-tech simplicity and high-tech gadgetry - and they are costly. Rescue climbers drill holes in their toothbrushes to lighten their loads while using global-positioning-satellite (GPS) devices for guidance.

It's all to keep pace with a populace that's ever seeking the newest route and the toughest climb. But even as thrill-seekers push rescuers to new extremes, these staffers are working to reduce risk.

"There's less cowboy-ism today," says Kirk Mauthner, who was part of the Mt. Hunter team. "The heroism doesn't come from the valor of doing the rescue - but from knowing you can do it safely."

For instance, in the Mt. Hunter attempt, which took place May 23, bad weather had prevented an airborne rescue for more than 12 hours.

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But suddenly the blustery skies cleared, so the team scrambled. Even though they knew clear skies wouldn't last long, they still took time for a practice run of the extraction - which was going to be especially tough because the climber was pegged to the ice wall under an overhang. This meant Mr. Shott would have to be lowered onto the wall 70 feet below the man and clamber up to him.

After the trial run succeeded, they were ready for the real thing.

This kind of attempt is one of the more dramatic of the 6,000 to 8,000 rescues a year performed by the National Park Service. In all, they range from helping tourists with twisted ankles walk out of the Grand Canyon to plucking immobile climbers off Mt. McKinley at 17,000 feet.

But everywhere, visitors are pushing the limits.

"People's desire to challenge themselves puts them in places where there's less margin for error," says Ken Phillips, search-and-rescue coordinator at Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, where more visitors are venturing onto remote routes away from major trails.

And on Mt. Hunter - an 11,100-foot peak near America's tallest summit, Mt. McKinley - the climbers were attempting a route that had never been climbed before.

Sophisticated equipment is also emboldening outdoor adventurers. "The technology has gone way beyond most people's ability to use it," says Tim Kovacs, president of the National Mountain Rescue Association in Golden, Colo.

He recalls a recent rescue in which a hiker was stranded on a small peak in the dark with a GPS unit. As rescuers arrived, he told them: "The GPS told me this was the best route back to my car." It didn't tell him there were three peaks on the way.

But technology is helping rescuers, too. Before GPS units arrived, they would "peer at three peaks around them and radio back to command, 'I think I'm by the big "R" on the map,' " says Mike Mixon, a search-and-rescue worker in Tacoma, Wash. Now GPS units attached to radios can plot a rescuer's exact location on a digital map at headquarters.

Rescuers are also developing new equipment. For instance, litters are stretchers with a protective rail around the edge used to hoist the injured to safety. But some victims were choking because they had to lay supine. Now Denali rangers use a litter in which the patient can lie on his or her side, thus preventing choking.

With more testing, rangers are also learning how far they can push their equipment. On Mt. Hunter, for example, the rope that Shott hung by was 200 feet long - twice the length that's considered safe. But because of the angle of the ice face, the longer rope gave the helicopter's spinning rotors more clearance. Even so, the rotors were 30 feet away from the wall, not the recommended 80 feet.

But training and testing told these rescuers the distances were safe enough. When Shott was finally lowered onto the wall, he scampered up to Malcolm Daly, the injured climber, and clipped the rope onto his harness.

They were ready to leave. But there was one problem: Now the rope was slack, forming a "J" shape. If they jumped, they risked swinging back and slamming into the wall. So, after a quick conversation with the pilot, they leapt off the wall while, at the same, the helicopter pulled away from the cliff.

The maneuver worked - and rescuer and rescuee were lowered to safety.

"It was the kind of situation we'd all been dreading," said Shott later. "But fortunately, we were all ready. And we pulled it off."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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