International Mountain Guides Climbing and Mountaineering Expeditions

Dave Hahn

Dispatches from the Mountains

 

Chopper Gumbo and the Midlife Crisis:
Heli Crash on the way to a Rescue on Rainier

September 2002

by Dave Hahn

I'm trying hard not to kill anything. Not bugs, not animals, not myself, but staying alive, and caring for life, can get tricky. It is almost cliche, when coming home from Everest and the land of Sherpas and karma, to integrate a little Buddhism into one's daily routine. My daily routine, post-Everest, consisted of swinging in my hammock in Taos, New Mexico, and sipping poorly constructed, yet effective, margaritas. You wouldn't think it would be too hard to affect a little "live and let live" attitude while so occupied. And yet, my resolve was tested, even there.

Spiders and crickets seemed to know of the new leaf I had turned over. They clearly saw the truce as an "open house" event, and so scampered freely about my adobe abode, as if they'd forgotten the bug-crunching ability of my oversized feet. I watched them warily and was tempted to rev up the old Dirt Devil, which has not undergone any sort of life-savoring conversion and can legally hoover the heck out of errant creepy crawlers (vacuum cleaners are karma-free). But I didn't, having come to the conclusion that life is good, no more killing.

At the end of my vacation, when I packed the car for a summer of mountain guiding, crossed the Rio Grande and left the Land of Enchantment, my conscience was squeaky clean. And must surely be why I didn't get crunched in a crashing helicopter on Mount Rainier just a few days later.

I'd actually started June 25th with little expectation that I'd need some serious karma to get through the day. I really just showed up at Rainier Mountaineering that morning to fill out my pre-season paperwork, and to beg for a raise. I don't remember that my views on the value of life ever even came up in my talk with the boss. I did try to tell Peter Whittaker what a big shot I'd become and how I'd love it if he found new ways to challenge my considerable skills. Peter welcomed me for my 17th year of guiding at RMI and shoved my paperwork in the same pile with that of about 70 other guides who'd recently given their own big-shot speeches. He promised to take my begging into consideration and he ushered me out of the office. I still had to fill out the form that allows the National Park Service to hire me, on-the-spot, to help in mountain rescues, and so I lingered in the outer office doing just that.

After a few minutes, I became aware that Peter had come out of his office and was looking over my shoulder. "A-ha," I thought, "he's mulled it all over and decided to elevate me to some high post with more money and minimal load-carrying duties." Instead, Pete suggested that I go ahead and sign that form I was working on. "The park just called and they are gearing up for a rescue on Liberty Ridge. Interested?"

I swallowed with a suddenly dry throat as I told him I would do it. But even as I said yes, I suddenly wished I was back in my hammock, watching arachnids. I was regretting the "big shot speech" and wondering if I was really ready for such activity. Liberty Ridge is big, rocky, loose, icy and steep. Things fall down out there, things get killed. When told that we'd be going after a 19 year old who'd caught a rock in the head, I was both motivated and worried. My own head doesn't do well with rocks. Even my climbing equipment wasn't ready for Mount Rainier. My gear was half packed for Denali, where I was bound in a few days. Perhaps though, I'd get one of those memorable mountain flights out of the deal. So I ran out to the car and got ripping into duffels and stuffing a pack.

The pilot of the Bell JetRanger 206 and I made small talk as we lifted off and swung past Mount Rainier's immense west side. I pointed up the Tahoma Glacier and asked if he'd ever been to the top of the hill. He said he hadn't and allowed that he'd figured us climbers were crazy. That got me laughing as I informed him that from the peak we'd often look out at mountain-buzzing pilots and suspect that they were deranged as well.

A few minutes later, the laughing was over and we were looking hard at the 9000-foot level of the Carbon Glacier where Liberty Ridge juts out from the avalanche scoured North Wall of Rainier. It is a big, intimidating mountain face and it towered 4000 feet above us. I was already moving blood at about 200 beats per minute. Flying in little helicopters does that to me anyway, but I was also looking up above to the accident site about 400 feet up a steep, rock-strafed snow slope on the side of the ridge.

Two climbing rangers, Stefan Lofgren and Nick Giguere, had already been "inserted" by a different helicopter and they were at the scene, performing first aid and planning the move off the ridge. Chris Olsen, another climbing ranger was sitting directly behind me. By then, we knew that Jesse Whitcomb had been hit in the head by a large rock that busted his helmet, knocked him out and knocked him down the slope. He'd been saved when his two rope partners arrested the fall. One of those partners, his Dad, had then called in the accident by cell phone.

Strapped well into my seat and trying to catch instructions coming via radio into the flight helmet I'd been loaned, I meant to keep my mind on helping the pilot find a safe place to put us in. It was too easy to just stare at the crazy crevasses and steep slopes we were going to have to battle, too easy also to get hypnotized watching the big north wall of Rainier and its hanging glaciers, wondering just how long they were going to hang.

Avalanches had cut the sensible landing sites down to precious few where we needed to go: somewhere in between the piles of ice debris and the sure hazard of rockfall from "Lib Ridge," and its bergschrund. Within that limited space, there were a few flat spots, but I wanted to avoid those. Flat places on a tilted glacier are often crevasse bridges of unknown strength. It took some time to settle on the next best spot for a helicopter to set down. As it turned out, that spot didn't work out so great.

The pilot worked carefully to set the ship down facing into the mountain on the sloping glacier surface, and the tail came slowly down to match the slope. But then, for some reason, it continued to go down a bit more. Just as I was wondering what that reason was and how much room the tail rotor still had, my thoughts were rudely and violently interrupted. WHAP, WHAP, WHAP, THUD, THUD, WHUD, THAP!!!!! And we shot up into the air. Just how far, I can't tell you. Some said it was no more than 20 feet. I thought it was a mile or two, but I wasn't looking out the windows then.

I had been watching the pilot and I guess I kept looking at his hand on the stick during that surprisingly steady rise without a tail rotor. But when I felt the ship starting to shake and spin, I didn't like seeing his hand wrestling with that collective anymore. I believe I looked straight ahead then to see my life flash before my eyes. But the flash was selective, it wasn't my whole life at all, just the parts that involved drunken binges and nausea.

We didn't spin very long and it wasn't "spinning" like a gyroscope, more like a bucking bronco. The guys up at the rockfall injury watched us go around perhaps three times. I just remember a whole lot of my face piling up with centrifugal force against the inside of my helmet before we crashed hard.

That was one of those "moments" that goes on for a lifetime. There was the feeling of being thrown hard against the safety straps that were biting into my shoulders, all the muscles in my neck and back straining in an instant of arrested momentum. There was the snow of the glacial surface exploding through the Plexiglas that had been at my feet, depositing about 40 pounds of the Carbon Glacier around my boots and legs. There was my sure sense that some big sharp metal parts were going to intrude on my flesh before the moment was over, a certainty that we were just going to go BOOOOM in a big flash and cloud of burning fuel and Gore-Tex. But in that same particular moment was the quick stillness and the flood of relief in being alive and whole.

It was most likely too soon to be feeling relieved. I should have been scrambling to get out. The pilot, and Chris, were a lot faster than me in that respect, perhaps they were still smart enough to be frightened of an explosion or of the wreckage simply tumbling down glacier towards the next big crevasse.

I asked if anybody was hurt, heard two quick "OK's" and turned around to see a bunch of wires, machinery and hoses dumping fluid onto Chris in the back seat. "Is that fuel?" I asked. Tasting it, someone said "No. Transmission fluid, hydraulics," which I guess I might have known since that big hunk of machinery in the back seat where Chris's head had been was the transmission.

Chris couldn't get out his own door because the back end of the helicopter had wrapped around to block his retreat, but when the pilot opened the opposite door, he was out of there faster than Martha Stewart dumping shares of ImClone.

Chris had completed a two-week helicopter safety course a week before this ride and he'd known that the thing to do in the back seat was to get his head way down between his knees, way down, and then to get out and away. Even so, after a few minutes, he'd taken off his helmet and was rubbing his head where some impact had managed to tag him. About then I was realizing that my own head turned a lot better to one side than to the other, but I was mighty happy to be alive and was beginning to focus on how to stay that way.

It seemed that before we'd taken two steps away from the JetRanger, which with its rotors absent and its tail gone and its nose dug into the glacier, no longer looked much like a helicopter, there were already TV news helicopters buzzing around like flies over roadkill. Chris had gotten the word out via radio that we had survived intact, since Stefan and Nick had seen and reported the crash from their perch without knowing our condition.

We rigged the pilot up with an improvised harness and the three of us roped up and began moving down to where a US Army Reserve Chinook helicopter was going to come in with reinforcements and to "extract" the pilot. The glacier travel wasn't too harsh in that we didn't break any snow bridges or get avalanched on the way to the new site, but I kept looking back worriedly at the pilot in his flight suit and non-mountain boots. I knew from our earlier chat that he wasn't big on the idea of learning to climb and I hated thinking that I might sour him on the idea forever by showing him a bad time.

The CH-47 or "Chinook" is a big helicopter and it announced its entrance with the characteristic booming of twin rotors. The little news helicopters grudgingly fell back to let the big military chopper in. When a dark green Chinook bears down on you, it seems natural to check the perimeter for enemy fire. I did, but I wasn't looking for Vietcong or Taliban. I was turning to watch Liberty Wall to see if it might drop some colossal avalanche down while we focused on the roaring battleship. With a Chinook hovering 50 feet above you, it is tough to think of much else. The rotors are massive, like Ponderosa Pines, and they make a ground-shaking WHUMP every time they swing by. The rotor wash hits you at about 60-miles-per hour, so you huddle over your pack, eager to keep it from being tossed down the glacier.

The extracting and inserting went just fine. Two more NPS rangers had dropped in. Brian Hasebe and Rich Lechleitner came with a ton of the climbing rope that was going to make the lowering of the backboarded Jesse possible. The CH-47 sailed away and left the four of us to the quiet of the mountain and the pounding of our hearts. (At least mine seemed to be making a lot of noise.) Brian, Rich and Chris seemed to be taking everything nicely in stride. It was suggested later that Chris and I might reasonably have opted out and left on that Chinook rather than staying for the next stage of things, but I doubt that either of us seriously considered that plan at the time. Although I was frightened of dying that evening, I wouldn't have been able to imagine that some other qualified volunteer was more "expendable" and should have come in to replace me.

Our crash had occurred at 4 p.m. and Jesse had been hit in the head at 8:30 that morning. Night would come on before too long and none of us wanted to think of the worst case scenario with a head injury. That being an internal brain bleed causing havoc in the night because we hadn't gotten the guy out when we had the chance.

We loaded up heavy packs and roped together. It is strange tying up to folks you don't know. There is a lot of trust involved, and suspicion. Chris and I had told each other just enough about ourselves to make the proper leap. Everything I saw convinced me quickly that he knew his rescue business and the short and sweet version of my big shot speech convinced him that I'd be okay on the front end of the climbing rope.

So I had a job, get the four of us up to that accident site. I got marching uphill, headed for the bergschrund and wondering how we'd get across it without getting creamed. I had the big advantage of being able to follow the tracks that Stefan and Nick had left when they'd climbed to the site, but even so, I didn't like the 'schrund one bit.

My legs sank down through the gooey snow and found new ways into the void beneath. And being below the surface of the steep slope above, I had trouble knowing just which rocks were rolling down and threatening to visit the 'schrund at breakneck speed.

I cursed out loud and pulled my legs back onto firmer snow. I was wondering if I could gracefully retreat when I saw Chris pointing back to where a small avalanche of ice blocks had just crossed the tracks we'd made 10 minutes earlier. Staying in any one place seemed like a lousy option. I pushed on across and with relief made it onto the upper edge of the crack. I could see now if rock threatened us. I could see up to the base of that cliff band where the four men were waiting with the patient. I could see a ton of sweat pouring into my eyes. I could see my crampon points digging in and holding in the mush if I kicked my boots hard enough. I could see that same maneuver over and over as my lungs started moving oceans of air to get enough for the work. And then it finally all felt good and familiar for a time, even the wondering if my heart would explode before I got where I wanted to get. The burn in my muscles erased the whiplash of the crash.

Each time I looked up, that semi-sheltered rock band and those rangers got a little closer. I told myself to do less looking, to do more climbing, more sweating. Chris, Brian and Rich steamed along calmly and smoothly behind me, each with his own sweat and heavy load.

And then we had arrived. But there wasn't a lot of time for handshaking and introductions; not a lot of time for trading stories about the crash they'd witnessed or the one we'd endured. Stefan and Nick had the thing dialed completely. They had the patient stabilized and ready for lowering. They had anchors all set to go. We supplied the rope and I got my new assignment. It would be my job, with Brian, to get the boy's Dad, Lonnie Whitcomb, and his partner, Tom Fitts, down the slope and to get in place for working the litter over the bergschrund when it came to that. And we needed to get moving.

The radio conversations were now focusing on just when would be the last moment that a helicopter could extract us before darkness, and that wasn't so far off. I was doing more dry swallowing. It wasn't that anybody else had been given a better, easier or safer assignment, I just hated the idea of mine - to go down that slope, the one I was watching rocks tumble down every few minutes now, roped to two more strangers, and these not even government men with their assumed high level of expertise. And to set anchors and fix ourselves to the absolute worst spot I could imagine being pinned in to await the litter. Uggghhh.

Sound alternatives didn't exist and the sun was swinging downward. We got on with the job. The descent went smoothly, with Stefan above yelling out at first signs of any rocks taking a bead on us. Just as we got down close to the 'schrund and the lowering team was catching up to us, I saw what I thought I was looking for. A rock that was jutting out perhaps four feet from the snow surface that we could anchor to and that I could use as a shield. We fixed our rope to the boulder and I directed Brian to get the other two across the 'schrund to relative safety while I prepared to belay the lowering team across the drop-offs. Brian cupped his hands and yelled something important up to me. I couldn't hear a word of what he was saying over the roar of the ice avalanche behind him.

I watched as a whole flock of Winnebago-sized ice blocks tumbled to within 200 hundred feet of our "safe" spot. It was a sign of how insane things had gotten that such an icefall no longer merited special attention. Back to the task at hand and thinking myself sly and clever, I rigged my seated belay so that I could be just downhill of the boulder, and therefore protected. There wasn't a moment to spare as the lowering team had already reached our level. I clipped into their line and began to take the weight of the litter as they reached the tricky 'schrund crossing. And that weight moved me out a little from my shelter which was good since then I could see up the hill a little better when everybody yelled "Rock!"

What I saw was a head-sized piece of Mount Rainier gathering speed and beginning to bounce and bound and hone in on me. I tried to back into my little shelter, but I'd miscalculated some and the weight of the litter pinned me where I was. I strained hard to crank my head and shoulders over a few inches, my hands were closed tightly on the rope.

Now the way I know that rock was "head-sized" and not grapefruit-sized or basketball-sized was that it came sailing by about three inches from my head. Considering that it would have stripped away my helmet, my hair, my cranium, hell, everything right down to my medulla oblongata, my body would have been anchored there belaying away like an anatomy lesson, it was another of those long "moments" watching it float past. Ughhh.

Those thoughts passed with a shudder and then it was all business as the boys did the heavy lifting over the cracks and we got back down on the "mellow" glacier, about 50 yards from where the JetRanger had crashed somewhere back in what seemed like the Pleistocene Age. The last of the rangers scrambled down fast and we readied for the inbound Chinook as darkness started to take hold.

As before, the Chinook wasn't actually going to land. They would use the "Jungle Penetrator" which is a big heavy mechanical grappling hook on a cable lowered down through the belly of the ship on a winch that was probably brand new in 1968. But I wasn't going to think of that, or the probability that the winch manufacturer had put in the lowest bid to get the contract. Despite remembering exactly how my last helicopter ride had gone, I was very eager to begin this new one.

Chris and I set up next to one another, both crouched over our packs and then it was the hurricane and the mothership hovering over us for minute after minute. Time to check the perimeter for incoming mortars again. Mount Rainier seemed to be chasing us. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see it erupt right then and hurl a little lava, fire and steam in our direction to go with the rocks and ice. I motioned Chris that I would watch the hill if he watched the ship since neither of us trusted the thing to stay up in the air in one piece.

The rescue litter went up with Jesse and then, one by one, the rest of the rescuers went up the line. Then it was my turn. I clipped in and sat where directed on the big claw and sure enough I was swept off the ground and dragged toward the "hell hole" as I'd heard soldiers refer to it. I wasn't going to think of that line breaking.

I had sunglasses on as protection against the wind, but as soon as my head was up inside the helicopter, it was too dark to see through them to know where to clip in for safety. I looked down what seemed like a long way to the glacier below and thought it would be sort of sad to die in the process of getting off the Penetrator. I yelled to some huge stranger in uniform and helmet and asked where to clip in. After a bit, he heard me, understood, and put the line in my hand. And then I was in the Chinook and crawling across its hard floor with my crampons on. I got out of the way and watched the Army boys from Fort Lewis doing their work flawlessly.

I swear I felt like hugging those guys when they got the last of the rangers in and we started pulling away from the mountain. But I'm pretty sure that hugging guys is frowned upon in military aircraft and I didn't want to get anybody fired, or dirty from the sweat and hydraulic fluid I was drenched in. Instead, I bent over to pull my crampons off and looked out the back ramp of the Chinook to see Mount Rainier, big and beautiful, a ghostly glow in the twilight. But not glowing with our ghosts, this time. We raced toward Madigan Army Hospital south of Tacoma.

The next day, a reporter asked me if that crash was the closest I'd ever come to dying and I laughed. I regret that I did, because it probably came off as cavalier and nonchalant, as if I didn't much care about death. But his question had me genuinely puzzled over how to rank close calls. I should have told him how good it felt, getting out of that Chinook down at sea level on a warm summer night in my filthy Gore-Tex and heavy climbing boots; my heartrate back to normal, my problems in perspective, smiling and tired. Humbled once again by mountains and machinery and by good men who go out to help people everyday. I should have told that reporter how close I came to living that day and how I'm not into killing anything.

Jesse ended up okay after a day or two. He walked out of the hospital as 19 year olds should. His rescue, with all of its odd twists and turns and difficulties was ably directed by Rick Kirschner, a veteran of about a million search and rescues in Mount Rainier National Park. The Operations Chief overseeing the field teams, plotting their strategies and representing them to Rick was Mike Gauthier, that's "Gator" to many of us who have watched him whip Mount Rainier's climbing ranger teams into a skilled and elite force. Steve Winslow was working to coordinate things between the air crews and the ground teams. Obviously, there were a whole lot more people who worked like crazy on June 25th to make it all come out just fine. My thanks and respect goes to them.

 

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Map of crash and rescue site

The crashed helicopter

 
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