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Fly Along On A Mt. Rainier Rescue Training Mission

Each year thousands of people attempt to summit Mt. Rainier. Inevitably some get into trouble and need to be air-lifted off the mountain.

At lower elevations, civilian helicopters can do the job. But if the rescue is above 8000 feet – park rangers call in the “workhorse of the Army” – a twin-engine, twin-rotor Chinook helicopter. Correspondent Austin Jenkins takes us on a practice rescue mission.

A Mt. Rainier climbing ranger prepares to be lowered from the Chinook helicopter onto the mountain

Here’s the scenario. There’s an injured climber at Observation Rock on the Northwest side of Mount Rainier – elevation 8300-feet.

At Fort Lewis Army Base near Tacoma, an Army Reserve Chinook Helicopter prepares to take-off.

Once airborne, the chopper heads for Kautz Helibase, just inside the park boundary.

Kautz is the official staging area for Mount Rainier rescues. It’s where the helicopter picks-up the climbing rangers who will drop out of the helicopter and make the rescue.

The Army Reserve has provided search and rescue services on Mt. Rainier since the mid-1990s. It’s part of a formal agreement with the National Park Service. The park gets free rescue helicopters and the Army Reserve gets training that prepares crews for missions in mountainous places like Afghanistan.

Bob Agee: “This is the aircraft that gets people around, this is the aircraft that can work at high-altitudes and still get the job done.”

Pilot instructor Bob Agee has flown Chinook’s since Vietnam. Most recently he flew combat missions over Iraq. But he says Mt. Rainier is a special challenge all by itself.

Bob Agee: “The biggest thing on this one is the turbulence because you can’t see the turbulence, you can only anticipate - okay the winds blowing from a certain direction, it’s probably going to be turbulent.”

The trick is keeping control of this big flying bus. When the wind hits it – the tail can swing around like a barn door.

Austin Jenkins: “This is a twin-rotor, giant helicopter. How do you control it at 1400 feet in high winds in a rescue situation a hundred feet off the ground?”

Bob Agee: “You’re biggest challenge is sometimes just finding a good reference point because if you’ve got white snow everywhere you’re reference points are kind of limited so you gotta pick out a good reference point so you don’t drift.”
Drift and you can easily smash into a ridgeline or the side of the mountain.

While the pilots and their crew are responsible for the air rescue, it’s the climbing rangers who do the work on the ground.

Mike Gauthier is the search and rescue coordinator at Mt. Rainier. Gator – as he’s known - is something of a legend on the mountain with more than a hundred and fifty rescues under his belt. He says the Army Reserve Chinook has been invaluable over the years. He remembers one especially dramatic rescue in 1998 when an avalanche swept 10 climbers over a cliff. One person died.

Mike Gauthier: “On a mission like that when you have ten people you need a lot of rescuers. So we were able to fly up 10 people to 11,000 feet and off-load them and then when it came time to fly all these patients off the mountain and get them all off the hill, a ship like this was able to take care of it.”

On this day, the victim is a 180-pound dummy. This training mission is a chance for the bearded rangers and the high-and-tight military guys to practice together.

Soon we’re hovering over Observation Rock. There’s plywood on the floor of the helicopter so the ranger’s crampons don’t punch through the sheetmetal.  One-by-one they drop by hoist through a trap-door. On the ground they package the dummy in a stretcher called a litter. Then the Chinook moves back in for the rescue.

Pilots: “Roger, landing area is coming under the nose, we’re off a hundred, rapidly rising terrain.”

For the next 20 minutes the Chinook holds perfectly steady – a couple hundred feet off the ground - as the litter and the four rangers are hoisted back on board.

Pilot: “Ya, that was real smooth guys. That’s what we like, a nice, safe procedure. Oh ya.”

After a couple of practice landings at the top of Rainier, it’s mission accomplished.

In a typical year there are about 30 rescues on the mountain. But the Army Reserve is only needed for few of those.

So far this year the Chinook has only been called out twice for real-life, high-altitude rescues.

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