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Rescuers describe mission to extract 12 mountaineers

Behind the scenes of the effort to safely bring sick, stranded adventurers home
An Alaska Air National Guard HC-130 hovers over the rescue site of 12 stranded mountaineers in...
An Alaska Air National Guard HC-130 hovers over the rescue site of 12 stranded mountaineers in Alaska.(Photo courtesy Alaska Air National Guard)
Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 5:47 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When Dr. Jennifer Dow experienced acute mountain sickness in the past, she descended in elevation, waited to feel better and was able to resume her climb. The mountaineer and emergency room doctor has summited Mt. Denali, Alaska’s highest peak, and is also the medical director for the Alaska Region of the National Park Service.

In that role, when calls come in, it’s a quick burst of essential information. Satellite communications, the emergency go-to in the backcountry, must be swift and efficient.

When the call came in Saturday that two individuals on a group mountaineering expedition in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on Mt. Bona were experiencing altitude-related symptoms, she was the voice advising next steps to the guides on the ground with the sick clients, and coordinating with the park service and military search and rescue crews.

The convergence of skill on the ground and in the air resulted in a successful mission. Four guides and eight clients, and all of the rescuers, made it home safely after an ordeal that began Saturday morning and continued through Tuesday.

“It’s so wonderful when you hear them coming overhead and you just you hear the sound of the rotors,” Dow said of the rescue of the mountaineering group. “And then it’s so disappointing when you hear the rotors go away because it’s too windy or steep or the slope is wrong. But they will do everything they can to try to get there preserving their own safety, which is as it should be.”

“Many of the rescuers are going into these high altitude situations unacclimatized, and so they’re putting themselves at risk to take care of people and to pull them off of mountains,” Dow continued. “And so we we have to be very careful when they go in and make sure that if for some reason that they get stuck at altitude, that they’re able to take care of themselves as well and take care of their own potential for altitude illness.”

Rescue efforts began after the National Park Service received a distress signal indicating mountaineers were experiencing high-altitude sickness and adverse weather. Four guides from St. Elias Alpine Guides and eight clients became stranded at 10,000 feet on Mt. Bona during what the Alaska Air National Guard described as a high-altitude training expedition.

“We cannot control the weather,” Dow said. “We cannot control the little changes in our personal physiology. And so everything can be done right and done correctly and still go wrong.”

The Alaska Air National Guard launched three rescue squadrons, the 210th, 211th and 212th of the 176th Wing, each bringing specialized expertise and equipment. Lt. Col. Keenan Zerkel, director of Alaska’s Rescue Coordination Center, calls them the rescue triad.

“They have a well-known reputation for being search and rescue experts throughout the world, especially here in Alaska,” Zerkel said Wednesday. “They basically bring a capability that’s unmatched anywhere in the world. And frankly, we’re very fortunate as Alaskans to have them here.”

The triad combines a powerful Hercules C-130 military transport aircraft, Pave Hawk helicopter, and medically trained para-rescuers.

“Their skill set involves medical training equal to a paramedic. And then a lot of other skills like ropes climbing, scuba freefall, jumps over land navigation, survival” Zerkel said.

Rescue crews faced cloudy, snowy, windy weather. Not only could rescuers not get in, an attempted airdrop of medical supplies also failed.

On Sunday, an Alaska Army National Guard Chinook helicopter joined the effort. The tandem rotor helicopter is used to support high-altitude, heavy-airlift extractions.

The crews spent 80 hours trying to pierce through. With the HC-130 overhead monitoring wind and weather, the Chinook made several attempts to reach the mountaineers.

“The helicopter’s not magic. Eventually, if the weather is challenging enough, which it was during this mission, you know at some point we’re going to be sitting on the ground and waiting for the weather to improve,” Zerkel said.

Meanwhile, Dow stood by for consultation. She declined to speak about the specifics of the rescue, but agreed to speak about the perils of high altitude illnesses and mountaineering.

“When somebody goes to altitude, they don’t have as much available oxygen and acute mountain sickness can manifest as a headache, nausea, weakness, inability to perform simple tasks, and then it graduates into high-altitude cerebral edema where there’s actual swelling, and then it will manifest as ataxia or a poor gait discrimination where they’re dropping things or can’t zip things up,” Dow said. “And then confusion, coma and potentially death.”

The first remedy is to get to lower elevation as quickly as possible, she said. When that can’t happen, medication and supportive oxygen can help keep patients stable while help is en route, she said.

St. Elias Alpine Guides declined to speak with Alaska’s News Source Wednesday, saying their team hadn’t yet debriefed amongst themselves. But Dow and Zerkel credit the guide team with keeping the group safe. Nearly 81 hours passed between the initial call for help and Tuesday’s late afternoon rescue.

“The guide services are exceptionally skilled, they are prepared to hunker down, they are prepared to to feed people to manage how much food that they have and to make sure that they are able to take care of their clients,” Dow said.

“Extending through their stove, fuel and food resources and everything else,” Zerkel said. “It’s not a matter of when people start sustaining or if people are going to sustain injuries, it’s when.”

Two mountaineers suffering from high-altitude sickness were initially treated by a military paramedic on board the rescue helicopter, then flown to Anchorage for more care. A third mountaineer was treated for minor frostbite.

“We were very lucky that the outcomes were without loss of life and the number of people that were involved, not just those who were on the mountain, but the rescuers, the potential for loss of life or significant injury was high,” Dow said. “And this is one of those situations where a lot of things could have gone wrong, but everybody was able to come out of this okay.”

Dow said this season, she’s wondered if being cooped up during the pandemic has caused a level of excitement among backcountry adventurers and climbers that could be working against them.

“For those who had put off trips that are in there now, they’re able to do them because the world is opening up somewhat, then their their excitement might be overcoming their self-preservation,” she said.

Overestimating ability, or not being honest with guides, can get expedition members into trouble.

“We’ve definitely seen problems this year in Alaska and down in the Lower 48 are, people are anxious,” Dow said. “They are anxious to get out and they’re pushing those ascent profiles to a degree that’s not safe or they’re finding themselves in a situation where they’re fighting weather. And so they might have the mindset that, ‘oh, well, a storm’s coming in, so we’re going to go higher and just sit it out and acclimatize there.’ And they might feel just fine at that moment, but that can also lead to problems.”

“The most important piece of advice that I can give to anybody who is going into the backcountry, participating in a high-altitude event, participating in anything that is outside of your normal is to be prepared and to know that just because you have a cell phone or just because you have an enriched device, rescue may not be hours away, maybe 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours away,” Dow continued. “So be prepared, and be prepared to take care of yourself and to take care of those who you’re with.”

A day before the rescue of the mountaineering group, a pilot and passenger who were on a separate trip were also rescued from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The two men from New York were rescued on Monday after being stranded near Mt. Hawkins due to weather on Saturday. After multiple failed attempts, the two men were rescued and taken to an Anchorage hospital for minor injuries.

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