Alaska Air Guardsmen rescue 5 hikers stranded on cliff near Valdez
An Alaska Air National Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron flies on a training flight July 10 in Southcentral Alaska. The hoist capabilities of the Pave Hawk helicopters provide the rescue assets with the ability to conduct rescue missions in rugged terrain.
LT. BERNIE KALE
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — Airmen with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons rescued five hikers near Valdez on July 17.
The group of hikers had become stranded on July 16 due to steep terrain were forced to spend the night.
“They were in significant terrain, only about a mile outside of Valdez,” said Capt. Christian Braunlich, a combat rescue officer with the 212th Rescue Squadron. “Even trying to climb down with ropes from there would have been challenging.”
After being contacted by the hikers, the Valdez Fire Department sent a team of four climbers in an attempt to reach the stranded hikers but were unable to recover them due to the terrain and wet climbing conditions.
A civilian R-44 helicopter attempted to assist in the recovery effort, but was unable to recover the hikers due to the size of the landing zone. The helicopter crew was able to drop food and clothing to help them get through the night, explained Braunlich.
The next day, Alaska State Troopers contacted the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center to request help from the Alaska Air National Guard because of their helicopter hoist capabilities.
The Air Guard accepted the mission and at approximately 9 a.m., dispatched an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron and an HC-130 King aircraft from the 211th Rescue Squadron, each with a team of Guardian Angels from the 212th Rescue Squadron on board.
Guardian Angel teams are highly trained medical personnel made up of a pararescue specialist and a combat rescue officer who specialize in conducting high-risk rescue missions.
At approximately 10:15 a.m., the rescue teams located the group of hikers.
“We had the radio frequencies of the fire department climbers,” said Braunlich. “By the time we reached them, two of the climbers had reached the group. We had communication with those two and with a fire department truck in the valley.”
Once the Pave Hawk had visual confirmation of the location of the VFD truck, the firemen vectored the helicopter into the location of the stranded group, explained Braunlich.
“The two climbers who had reached the group had also put up flagging tape to make them a little more visible,” Braunlich said.
The Pave Hawk crew hoisted four of the stranded hikers into the helicopter and flew them to the Valdez Airport, and then went back to get the last hiker and the fire department climbers.
“We returned and picked up the three people remaining at the site,” Braumlich said.
The other two VFD climbers were on a gravel bar below, and the helicopter was able to land to pick them up, then transport them to the Valdez Airport. The five hikers were released to the AST with no significant injuries.
“They were all in pretty good shape considering they didn’t have the right clothing or gear to stay out there,” said Braumlich. “I think the best thing people can do is have a plan and communicate that plan to somebody who is not going on your trip. This is Alaska, and it’s easy to get into situations you didn’t foresee when you left your house.”