CENTENNIAL, Colo. – Using a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter equipped with a hoist, one flight crew helped rescue four injured hikers, in span of five hours, in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness Area Aug. 25.
It all started at 3:43 p.m. that Saturday, when Guardsmen at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Eagle, Colo., received word from the Pitkin County Sheriff of a desperate situation on Hagerman Peak -- a steep, narrow ridgeline at 13,841 feet elevation.
Four hikers were injured in a rock slide -- one of them critically -- and the Soldiers were being summoned to help Mountain Rescue Aspen and Flight For Life Colorado perform the rescue mission.
Guardsmen immediately began mobilizing a UH-60 Black Hawk outfitted with a hoist, a capability unique to the military, in order to rescue the victims, who were scattered along cliffs made by jagged, unstable rocks.
In the mean time, official synchronization of efforts between the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., the Colorado National Guard's Joint Operations Center in Centennial, Colo., and HAATS ensued.
By 4:57 p.m., the helicopter's rotors were turning when AFRCC assigned the mission number: 12M0531A.
Unfortunately, during the short window in which Soldiers readied for the medevac mission, the most critically injured of the group had already passed away on the mountain.
But tragedy wouldn't stop the Soldiers from rescuing the remaining hikers.
By 6:10 p.m., the Soldiers had arrived at the scene and began the delicate process of transporting them, and their ground rescuers, off the mountain and to safety.
The flight crew's priority became the next most injured hiker, who wasn't able to move due to his injuries.
"By far the safest way to load a patient into a helicopter is to land the aircraft as close to the scene as possible," said Lt. Col. Joshua Day, HAATS commander. "However, in SAR missions, when we arrive on scene, the reality from the air can be completely different than the initial assessment from the ground."
When pilots attempted to land the helicopter in the steep scree, the jagged boulders moved under the weight of the aircraft. Because the crew didn't want to set off another dangerous rockslide in the midst of an already perilous situation, the Soldiers determined that the hoist was the only other option.
"The only way to attach the victim to the hoist was to put him into a climbing harness," said Day. "We needed climbing harnesses and the two SAR team members who were still climbing up to the victim had them. They were at least 1,000-1,500 feet below the victims in a scree field."
Lacking a suitable LZ to pick up the SAR team members, the first -- and only -- landing of the day involved one wheel of the UH-60 on a tiny cliff.
"We had to execute a one-wheel landing and get them in through the left cargo door," said Day.
In time, the first patient and a SAR team member were hoisted into the helicopter and taken to a lake at the base of the mountain to wait as the helicopter and crew went back to the top to help rescue the remaining injured hikers and ground team members.
"The aircrew tried to execute another one-wheel landing, which is safer than hoisting, to retrieve the last of the hikers and SAR personnel, but the landing was unsuccessful due to the instability of the rocks," said Day. "Not wanting to start another rock slide, it was decided to hoist the remaining people off of the ridge."
By 7 p.m., all three surviving patients, along with the three Mountain Rescue Aspen team members, had been hoisted off the mountain and delivered to Aspen Airport, where civilian emergency services waited to transport the patients to a local hospital.
But the day wasn't over yet.
At 7:15 p.m., as the Black Hawk and crew were returning to their home base at the Eagle County Airport, they were hailed for another rescue mission in the same wilderness area from where they had come.
Another hiker received severe injuries after falling on South Maroon Bell, a peak of 14,156 feet. The victim had received multiple serious injuries in a fall and lay at approximately 12,500 feet.
The crew turned back to Aspen to pick up a litter, refuel, and perform final mission coordination.
By that time, a Flight For Life helicopter crew had already inserted a ground team at an LZ below the victim, and the team was already providing aid to the patient.
By 8:15 p.m., the Black Hawk crew had arrived at the mountain. This time, due to the mountain's 30 to 40 degree slope, a landing zone wasn't available, so the crew delivered the litter to the ground team by hoist.
"Because the civilian helicopter doesn't have a hoist, the ground teams would've had to carry the victim down to the lower LZ for the civilian helicopter to extract him, and it would've been dark by the time they got him down to the LZ," said Day. "Racing against darkness, it was safer and faster for the Black Hawk to hoist the victim out and take him to the airport."
As the summer light faded into twilight, the helicopter hovered above while ground rescuers loaded the patient on the litter, then helped hoist him into the helicopter.
Like the earlier hikers, Soldiers delivered the patient to Aspen Airport for further medical transportation.
"Flight For Life and the military have been building an incredible relationship over the years and to be able to count on each others' unique skills and capabilities to have a successful outcome on these missions -- it's really a total-team effort," said Kevin Kelble, flight paramedic with Flight For Life who was part of the rescue mission.
Yet the Soldiers wouldn't consider their mission complete. Their creed, never leave a fallen comrade, is one they take personally.
Without hesitation, on Aug. 27, at the request of the Pitkin County Sheriff, Mountain Rescue Aspen and the family of the fallen hiker, the Soldiers recovered the remains of the rock slide victim that still lay on Hagerman Peak.
"It's a good thing to help bring closure to the family," said Master Sgt. Greg Clancy, HAATS first sergeant, who operated the hoist during the recovery. "In the midst of operations, we have to treat these assignments like any other mission; but at the end of the day, it's also gratifying to bring a person home."
Since Oct. 1, 2011, HAATS aircrews have helped save 12 lives in 14 search-and-rescue missions in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.