JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash.—The evening of Jul. 29, 2022, was one of the worst in Avi Baehr’s life, but not the last night of her life thanks to a U.S. Army aeromedical evacuation crew assigned to U.S. Army Air Ambulance Detachment (USAAAD)- Yakima.
Mount Stuart sits in the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in central Washington. Unlike many prominent peaks, however, it is not a volcanic peak but one of solid granite. It’s a very difficult climb due to its steep relief and takes technical climbing skills to summit on even the easiest approaches.
“My partner and I had successfully summitted Mount Stuart via the North Ridge, a technical rock ascent, and were starting our descent from the summit, just starting to come off the ridgeline into the [narrow gully] leading down the mountain,” Avi Baehr, a Spokane, Wash. resident, said.
That’s when she experienced an accident that would set life-threatening events in motion.
“I slipped on the steep snow and was not able to [stop movement downward] with my ice axe. My partner estimated I slid more than 300 feet before impacting the boulder field and tumbling a short way before coming to a stop in the rocks,” Baehr said.
Baehr, an emergency physician, knew immediately she was in trouble if not seen by medical professionals as soon as possible.
“I knew very shortly after the impact that my femur was broken and that I would not be able to continue the long, steep and loose descent to get off the mountain. We activated emergency services via both 911 and a Garmin inReach within a few minutes of my climbing partner making his way down to me,” Baehr said. “We learned it would be a U.S. Army helicopter coming to rescue us shortly after from the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office.”
Sergeant first class Adrian Trujillo was the critical care flight paramedic on call that evening.
“I was just about to take my boots off and lay down when the call came in,” Trujillo said.
It took only an hour from the time the USAAAD aircrew was notified of the mission to the time they reached Avi’s location.
“I was very surprised and extraordinarily grateful that a helicopter was en route that night! The accident occurred shortly before sunset, and my partner and I thought that we would need to spend the night on the mountain,” Baehr said.
Avi was not the only one in danger though; due to the terrain the aircrew was in a precarious position.
“Being that it was on the side of a mountain at high elevation with a very steep incline, most of which was uneven with rocks and snow, I informed the crew that I would stay attached to the hook and rescue seat during the patient extraction,” Trujillo said. “Normally, I’d be able to disconnect from the hook and package the patient for litter extraction but due to the terrain this was not possible and would have been very unsafe for myself and the patient. I was hoisted 50 feet down and just downhill from the patient because it was not possible to move the aircraft any closer to the mountainside without putting the whole crew and aircraft at risk.”
Once on the ground, Sgt. 1st Class Trujillo had to slowly and carefully navigate up to the patient, battling unstable rocks, waist deep snow, and rotor wash being blasting down from the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter above.
Unlike Trujillo, Baehr had no way to communicate to the helicopter crew just how precarious her position was.
“Because the chopper was so loud, there was some brief confusion on my end about how the flight medic wanted me to attach to the hoist, made more difficult by the steep and uneven terrain and my inability to move from where I had landed,” Baehr said. “Any change in position was excruciating and I couldn’t bear any weight on my broken leg. The medic actually went back up to the helicopter to communicate with the rest of the team, and the pilot was able to reposition the chopper so it was more directly above me.”
Trujillo credits his training and fellow crew members on remaining calm in the difficult situation.
“My pilots CW3 Muntifering and CW2 Vasloban did an amazing job flying, positioning the aircraft and holding a very stable hover. My crew chief, Staff Sgt. Sawaya did a great job on the hoist from lowering me down onto the safest rock he could visibly see and raising myself and the patient back up to the aircraft,” Trujillo said. “The one part of our training I can always fall back on is remaining calm during the chaos.”
Avi also commented on the crew’s seemingly unshakable resolve to getting her off the mountain.
“I was too distracted to notice at the time, but my partner commented on how incredible the pilot was, keeping the helicopter stationary in a what seemed like a very precarious position given the steep slope of the terrain where I was being rescued, with the tail rotor barely a dozen feet off the mountainside,” Baehr said.
The patient, being an emergency physician herself, had strong praise for Sgt. 1st Class Trujillo and Staff Sgt. Sawaya, “During the flight the medic was able to get a set of vitals, place an [intravenous fluid line], and secure a splint to stabilize my leg. His partner helped to pull traction on my leg to ease some of the pain. In femur fractures, the thigh muscles contract and pull the bone fragments past each other, shortening the leg and causing a lot of pain; maintaining traction helps a lot!”
After arriving at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, Trujillo handed Baehr off to the attending emergency room staff and the aircrew returned to Yakima Training Center to reset. Avi consulted with the doctor who agreed to move her to a better-equipped hospital for follow-on treatment and was sent to Spokane for surgery.
“I was in the operating room approximately 12 hours after my injury, which is incredible given how remote my accident was,” Baehr said. “I am so incredibly grateful for the quick rescue; I still can’t believe that they came out to get me at nearly midnight, at about 9,000 feet and in highly technical terrain! I am so thankful for the skill, compassion, and professionalism that I saw from the entire evacuation team that night.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Trujillo, this was just another night on duty at USAAAD.
“This is one of the finest organizations or units that I’ve had the opportunity to serve with in my 13 years of military service. We get to do real-world missions both on-post and off-post and when we’re not conducting missions, we’re training. At those elevations power management becomes a concern but most of our crew members have been to a course in Colorado that prepares us for this style of flying in high elevations,” Trujillo said.
The unit is based out of Yakima Training Center in central Washington. USAAAD operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide aeromedical evacuation support for thousands of service members training at Yakima Training Center each year.
Additionally, the detachment works with the Washington State Emergency Operations Center, local sheriff departments, and civilian volunteers to provide rescue coverage in south-central Washington’s remote wilderness areas.
The life-saving aeromedical evacuation is a collaborative effort. As a detachment with 33 personnel and four aircraft, every member of the team is vital to USAAAD.
The 16th Combat Aviation Brigade operates two aeromedical evacuation units that provide defense support to civil authorities: Yakima Dustoff in central Washington and Arctic Dustoff in central Alaska.