MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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September 26, 2013

Viviane's Baker with Heli Rescue

Have you ever had a helicopter land next to your tent?  Or been involved in a rescue?  I hadn't - until one of my trips on Baker.

We were very methodically working our way up the Roman Headwall to the summit plateau.  We had left early - really early - to avoid some bad weather that was forecasted to come in that afternoon.  Climbing in wind and that terrible stuff that they call a "wintry mix"?  You know, the stuff that gets you soaked by rain, frozen by sleet, and struggling in a snowstorm, all at the same time?  No thanks!  We saw a few parties below us, but we were clearly the first group to leave camp.  Imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw a man pop his head over the top of the headwall.  He stood there, watching us methodically make our way up the slope.  I chatted with him as we got closer, about the usual stuff like the weather and the beautiful dawn and the mountain conditions.  He was friendly and cheerful.  I eventually told him that I hadn't expected anyone to be ahead of us.  And he said, "I am actually in a little bit of trouble.  I spent the night up here."

Say what?

"The wind was 80-100km last night.  I have a down jacket that kept me warm, and I found some water, but I'm running a little bit low on food."

Yeah, I'll bet.  If I had spent the night burning calories to stay warm sitting on the top of a mountain in howling winds, I would have eaten my backpack.

Apparently he had parked his truck in Glacier, WA and soloed up the Coleman-Deming route in one day, an elevation gain of just under 10,000 feet.  Not only that, but the road on that side of the mountain was washed out this spring.  What was once the most popular route on a very popular peak has now become a deserted mountainside.  I imagine it looking like a mountain version of a Hollywood-style post-apocolyptic New York: nothing but abandoned campsites with tumbleweeds made of Clif Bar wrappers and empty oatmeal packets bouncing by, punctuated by that lonely howling wind that they love to put in movies.

His plan was to parasail back down to his truck, but he fell in a crevasse and twisted his knee.  That slowed him down, and by the time he reached the summit, the winds had picked up and it was no longer safe to fly.  He couldn't retrace his steps because he was worried he couldn't make it with his bad knee.  He couldn't go down the Easton Glacier because he didn't know the way.  By 5PM, when he realized that he wasn't going to get off the summit before nightfall, he hit the 911 button on his SPOT and waited to be rescued.  But no one came.

I quickly assured him that we would take care of him.  We gave him food, a sleeping pad, and a tarp (he refused water and extra layers, saying he didn't need either), and my co-guide stayed with him to wrap his knee while the rest of us scurried to the summit and back.  Then we made him a harness out of a cordellette, gave him extra 'biners to clip into our rope, and headed back down the mountain.  Meanwhile, our clients stood there rubbing their chins and saying "Oh, THAT'S why you guys carry so much gear..."

None of us were quite sure how to cancel the 911 call on the SPOT, but he hit the "OK" button, reasoning that it would send his wife a message and she could then let Search and Rescue know that he was fine.  We crossed our fingers that that would work, and there wouldn't be a search party coming to the summit to find a guy who was no longer there.  Apparently, that didn't work, because just as we got back to camp, we heard the familiar sound of rotor blades and looked up to see a helicopter come flying up the valley.  It circled the summit a few times, then started to scan the rest of the mountainside.

We didn't want the helicopter to waste its time, but we had no way of communicating "He's OK" to the crew.  So we flagged it down as it passed over us.  Then we watched as this huge military helicopter banked sharply, spun around, and landed in a snow patch near our camp.  Two Search and Rescue guys came running out.  We quickly told them that the man they were looking for was with us and he was fine.  They ran back to their helicopter and took off.  The whole thing lasted less than five minutes.

So I got to help in what was probably one of the tamest "rescues" on record.  I'm sure it was just a blip on the radar for the Search and Rescue world, and nothing compared to situations that other guides have been in.  But I got to watch a helicopter land right next to me, and that was just plain cool.