By Steve HardingAugust 29, 2007
MOUNT RAINER, Wash. (Army News Service, Aug. 29, 2007) - Most of the 6,000 to 8,000 climbers who each year attempt to scale this long-dormant volcano walk off the mountain under their own power. For the unfortunate few who can't - either because of injury or incapacitation - the trip down is often courtesy of an Army Reserve CH-47 Chinook.
Supporting the National Park Service climbing rangers who undertake high-altitude rescues on Mount Rainier has been the specialty of the Fort Lewis-based Company A, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, since 1990, said the commander of the 230-member unit, Maj. William Wynn. And it's a specialty that requires a lot of expertise.
"High-altitude mountain flying is an especially challenging type of aviation, and it doesn't get any easier when you throw in the rescue aspect," Maj. Wynn said. "Doing both things well requires constant practice, both for us and for the Park Service personnel we work with."
Reinforcing the collective skills of the Soldiers and their Park Service colleagues was the point of an exercise carried out yesterday, a practice mission to insert a climbing ranger by rescue hoist onto a narrow, snow-covered section of Ptarmigan Ridge, about 8,600 feet up on Mount Ranier's western side. The task was to "rescue" a human-sized mannequin, and the event was intended to provide training for both the rangers and the aircrew.
"We do this type of training every year in order to maintain our proficiency in all the various aspects of mountain rescue flying," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Bovey, Co. A's standardization-instructor pilot. "It's advantageous for us to take any opportunity to train with the Park Service people."
While weather conditions on and around the mountain are notoriously changeable and can be harsh even in late summer, yesterday the skies were crystal clear and the winds moderate. After lifting off from Fort Lewis's Gray Army Airfield, two Co. A Chinooks - one filled with rescue equipment and the other with journalists eager to document the training event - flew to the Park Service's Kautz Helibase.
Wedged between a large stream and a wall of trees at an elevation of 3,000 feet at the base of Mount Rainier, the small landing zone is where the Army helicopters usually pick up the Park Service rescue teams. Waiting for the Chinooks yesterday were Mr. Michael S. Carney, Mount Rainier's NPS aviation manager; supervisory climbing ranger Mr. Mike Gauthier; and several rangers dressed and equipped for the winch mission.
"We really appreciate the support we get from Co. A," Mr. Gauthier said. "When rescues happen up on the mountain they tend to be intense, complex and challenging missions, and being able to call on the Chinooks is very helpful for the Park Service."
During a quick but thorough mission briefing conducted in the shade of the Chinooks' squat fuselages, the Soldiers and Park Service personnel conferred on routes, objectives and safety issues. Then, with everyone aboard, the Chinooks lifted off and climbed steadily upward.
Once in position above the ridge the "rescue" Chinook went into a hover and a ranger and the mannequin, both attached securely to a long hoist cable, were lowered through a 3-by-3-foot hatch in the aircraft's belly. Upon reaching the ground the ranger moved the mannequin a short distance away, and was then winched back into the hovering Chinook. The aircraft moved off around a spur of the mountain, then came back in to perform the simulated rescue. Again the ranger descended on the winch cable, and this time moved to, and secured, the "injured" climber.
With the simulated victim secure and the ranger safely back aboard, the helicopter then ascended to a point just below Rainer's summit, where it briefly landed before heading back down to the helibase. After dropping off the Park Service personnel, the two Chinooks returned to Fort Lewis, where Maj. Wynn took the opportunity to talk about the value of the mountain-rescue missions, not just to the Park Service and to injured climbers, but also to the aviators and the Army.
"These missions are very similar to those that Chinooks are often called upon to fly in Iraq, and especially in Afghanistan," he said. Some of the mountains in the latter are 12,000 feet high and covered with snow year-round, he pointed out, and a mission there to recover a downed Air Force pilot, for example, would be very similar to the rescue missions on Mount Rainier.
"By flying these mountain-rescue missions we're not just helping our fellow citizens," Maj. Wynn said, "we're also polishing skills that we may very well have to use in combat. This unit spent 14 months in Iraq, and if we go back, we will be more than ready."