CENTENNIAL, Colo. (9/30/12) -- Soldiers, civilians and county sheriff's personnel worked in tandem to rescue injured climbers in the Indian Peaks mountain range Sept. 7.
And a National Guardsman ended the day needing to be rescued himself.
Sterling Roop, one of a group of three experienced mountain climbers, suffered head trauma and other injuries after falling approximately forty to fifty feet during his ascent of Mount Bancroft in Clear Creek County, Colo.
"We left Boulder around 6 a.m. and planned to climb the relatively simple and straightforward, mostly fourth and fifth class, east ridge up Mount Bancroft," said climber Adam Pérou Hermans. "We planned to be back in Boulder by lunchtime, or early afternoon."
"It was fairly easy -- but technical -- climbing, but you never know what can happen," said Roop, an experienced climber and certified wilderness first responder who still doesn't remember the fall.
In the subsequent rock fall, Alexander Lee, who was giving Roop the belay, also received a hand injury.
In response, members of the Alpine Rescue Team, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Flight for Life Colorado, and Colorado Army National Guardsmen from the 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation worked together to support the Clear Creek County Sheriff to bring the injured climbers to safety.
Hermans recalled the incident:
"The day was overcast, and we had a few big gusts and short bursts of hail, but nothing too rough.
"The climb was not on the main route, but it was easy. Sterling climbed the face with no problem, and was just walking along the top ledge when he slipped, as if on a banana peel or black ice. … To our horror, his slip propelled him off the ledge and he rag-dolled back down the face he'd just climbed, smashing and crashing into ledges and the rock wall along the way.
"At one point, a piece of gear (a nut) flew from the wall, and Sterling fell longer and farther than he should have. Fortunately, Alex held and caught the belay and Sterling stopped about eight feet above the ground.
"For a split second, I expected him to look up and mutter, 'Whoa!' as friends have after such scary moments in the past. Instead, Alex started screaming.
"Sterling was upside down, unconscious, bleeding profusely from the head, and making terrible noises—something between snoring and wheezing. His mouth was full of some sort of foamy, gray liquid. He's a huge guy (approximately 200 pounds) and I wrestled to flip him over."
By 10:40, Hermans and Lee had called 911, and for the next several hours, the two friends frantically tended to Roop as they waited for help to arrive.
As they waited, Hermans called on his Wilderness First Responder training and Lee used his Wilderness First Aid training to care for their injured friend.
During the lower levels of alertness and orientation, Hermans said Roop was belligerent.
"At some points he would try to move, at which point I would need to wrestle to keep him pinned down, as I was afraid of a neck injury and paralysis, and of him either sending himself or pulling us both down the cliff (at this point we were anchored to a steep slope over a perhaps 1,000-foot fall to the valley below)."
Roops's alertness and orientation slowly improved, but he still didn't remember what had happened.
"For the last hour he'd ask me every couple minutes, 'What happened? Whose blood is this?' And I'd tell him, and then he'd ask again," said Hermans.
Hermans said that as Roop became more alert, his shoulder started causing him more pain, and he'd scream, curse and groan in response.
Then Roop started to get cold.
"He was chattering and shaking uncontrollably," said Hermans. "Alex and I gave him every layer we could -- thermals, fleeces, our rain jackets -- but he kept shivering. I'd hug him and rub the insides of his legs, but he wouldn't warm up enough."
Rescuers were first airlifted by Flight for Life to a landing zone close to the accident scene at Lake Caroline, but still needed to climb nearly 600 feet up steep, class-4 terrain to reach Roop on the east ridge of the mountain.
"About an hour later, two men came over the ridge, and a long process of getting Sterling an IV and into a sleeping bag, onto a litter, and attached to a pulley system ensued," said Hermans. "Within an hour of the first two men's arrival, four more men were on the ridge helping us as well, and about five more men waited below."
Because of the location and extent of Roop's injuries, ground rescuers determined that the safest and fastest way to get Roop off the mountain was to hoist him up via helicopter -- a unique capability almost exclusive to the National Guard.
"After rescuers reached the injured climbers, the seriously injured subject was first hauled up to the ridge using an improvised 3:1 mechanical advantage system," Alpine Rescue Team said in a written statement. "He was then belayed a hundred feet along the top of the narrow, exposed ridge to a small ledge where he and his rescuers awaited the arrival of the National Guard air crew."
The location for the extraction was in a saddle along a spine ridge an almost sheer cliff approximately 300 to 400 feet on both sides. The saddle extended out between two bowls about a half mile each in length. A glacial lake filled each bowl.
Upon arrival at the mountain, the UH-60 Black Hawk crew assessed the situation to ensure the team could safely attempt a live hoist.
"After discussing how we were going to position, we radioed the Alpine Rescue Team and informed them that we were going to attempt the extraction," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brian Wright, the pilot in command of the Black Hawk. "During our turn to the final approach, clouds moved in from the valley to the north. This made an attempt for extraction too risky, so we aborted and informed the rescue team that we would loiter in the area in case the weather cleared."
Pilots steered the helicopter out of the bowl and flew just across a ridge to the north and west, near Winter Park, Colo. There, the helicopter blades continued to turn as the crew assessed the clouds that extended north up the valley.
"We had turned back to the south and were about three minutes from the scene when the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Department radioed and informed us of an opening the clouds," said Wright. "We quickly agreed to fly back into the valley and re-assess the situation. The clouds had dissipated and we had a clear shot at the rescue."
According to the Black Hawk's co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Maggie Leturno, the pressure altitude at the extraction site was approximately 12,000 feet. At the time of medic insertion, the aircraft gross weight was 14,950 pounds. The crew ran tabular data and determined that maximum torque available was 85 percent with a predicted out of ground hover power of 78 percent. For the crew, and the injured climber, that seven percent difference was critical.
"Conditions, winds, temperatures and other factors can change quickly in the mountains," said Wright. "A slight change in wind speed and/or direction can cause a significant change in the amount of power required to maintain a hover at altitude. Just a few knots of wind could have caused the 7 percent window we had to decrease. Adding the weight of the patient plus the litter could also cost, now leaving us with just a few percentage points before reaching the maximum torque available. Depending on the skill of the aviator at the controls, the power requirements could increase even more, therefore decreasing our power margin even further, which doesn’t allow much room for error."
Wright and Leturno flew the helicopter into position over the patient at approximately 120 feet above him.
"It was a precarious spot as it left approximately 10 to 20 feet of room on each side of the helicopter, and there were sheer cliffs to our front and rear," said Wright. "This is not a comfortable position for the fact that if anything went wrong, the end result would have been extremely bad -- especially with the glacial lakes at the bottom of each bowl to our front and rear."
In the mean time, the flight medic, Staff Sgt. Eric Williams, had secured himself to the jungle penetrator.
Once in position, the Crew Chief, Sgt. Steve Leflar, opened the right cabin door and started booming the hoist out, and Williams was lowered approximately 80 feet to a small scree clearing on the rock face, in close proximity to the patient.
As he landed on the ridgeline, Williams maneuvered himself on a cliff at a precarious angle on his back and right side. As he attempted to get a better grip on the rock, he slid off the face. He was still attached to the jungle penetrator and hoist, so he only fell about 10 to 15 feet before the hoist line caught him, but he slammed back into the rock face and was knocked off his seat on the jungle penetrator.
"I felt our helicopter jerk down and right, slightly," said Wright. "A sickening feeling came over me."
Williams had taken a blow to the face from the jungle penetrator. The hit knocked his maxillofacial shield.
"Fortunately, Leflar, the crew chief, had a visual and informed us Williams was OK," said Wright.
Williams climbed up to the patient and continued with his mission, checking the rigging that Alpine Rescue Team had set up for the basket and attached the basket to the hoist cable.
As the mission on the ground continued, Leturno remained at the controls and held the aircraft in a solid position. While hovering, she informed the co-pilot that clouds were moving back up the valley towards them.
"As I scanned to her side, I could see that the clouds were moving in quickly," said Wright. "This was making the situation that much more risky and therefore nerve wracking from an aviator's perspective."
It was still somewhat clear to the front left side of the helicopter.
The litter was hooked up to the hoist and Leflar was cabling Roop up as the clouds continued to move up the valley toward them.
"The patient was only 10 to 15 feet below the helicopter and the clouds looked as though they were less than 200 feet out from our right side," said Wright. "At this point we had no choice but to start moving -- even with the patient outside of the aircraft."
As Leturno slowly maneuvered the Black Hawk forward, Leflar struggled to get the patient inside the door -- the Stokes litter was rigged so that it was about three inches lower than the helicopter floor -- but Leflar, fought hard and subsequently wrestled the patient into the aircraft and secured him inside.
Maj. Rick Albers, of the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office, radioed the crew and told them to land by his truck, which was located in the bowl next to Loch Loman Lake.
While en route, the Alpine Rescue team also radioed the Soldiers to give them a patient update.
"This was a little confusing as we had the patient onboard," said Wright. "I ignored the call as we were on short final to land."
Once on the ground, Paul Woodward, Alpine Rescue Team mission coordinator, Albers, and Leflar worked together to offload the patient and transfer him to a Flight for Life helicopter, which would take Roop to a local hospital.
As the Black Hawk idled, the crew members learned that Williams had been injured.
"That was the patient update the Alpine Rescue Team was trying to pass to us," said Wright. "This was a horrible feeling as we were informed that Williams had a possible unexposed compound fracture to the lower tibia."
Meanwhile, on the mountain, the ground rescuers were now without a litter, so the team adapted by lowering Williams more than 200 feet from the ridgeline. Another rescuer then had to rappel down the same section of the mountain carrying the jungle penetrator on his back. This helped ensure the safest extraction from a lower LZ -- and to get the rescue team started on hiking out in case a medevac for Williams wasn't possible, as the mountain was again socked in with clouds.
The Black Hawk crew decided to shut down to conserve fuel.
Wright called Capt. Eric Houck, Company G commander. After a few minutes discussion -- whether to fly back to Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., to refuel and pick up another flight medic, or stay put and attempt to get Williams out -- the crew determined they were going to stay.
"None of us wanted to leave," said Wright.
Then the clouds broke for the last time that day.
"We informed the sheriff to call the rescue team and ensure that they had the jungle penetrator with Williams so we could get him out as safely as possible," said Wright. "We quickly started the aircraft and flew below the cloud bank, into the bowl on the other side of the spine to the new extraction site."
"As we came into line-of-sight of the extraction point, Williams radioed us as 'Medic 1,'" said Wright. "He sounded great. It was so good to hear his voice and the tone of it was comforting. We could tell he was alright."
The crew moved into position quickly, hovering about 80 feet above Williams.
When the National Guard helicopter was in position, the jungle penetrator was given to Williams, and he attached it to the hoist cable and secured his safety harness to the jungle penetrator.
Leflar hoisted Williams up immediately.
Once Williams was in the aircraft and the door was closed, the crew departed -- low on fuel but enough to get back safely.
Leturno then contacted the Clear Creek County Sheriff and requested that he contact the hospital to tell them the Guardsmen were on the way.
Once at hospital's helipad, the crew had to maintain some lift to keep the aircraft light as the pad was only rated for 12,500 pounds -- the Black Hawk was approximately 13,200 pounds.
The reluctant patient refused to be carried out on a litter. Instead, Williams began offloading himself.
"It's just the type of Soldier he is," said Wright.
Leflar made it out in time to get under Williams' left arm and assist him from under the rotor wash to a waiting wheel chair.
Two days later, Williams received surgery on his ankle to repair the broken tibia. Now in a soft cast, he's awaiting physical therapy in November.
Roop was released from the hospital the following morning and he and his climbing partners were back in the mountains just weeks following the accident.
Yet having experienced such a mission from both sides -- as a rescuer and patient -- Roop and his climbing partners noted the importance of remaining analytical when assessing risk.
"Even though there was very low risk (in the climb), there was still very high consequence," said Lee. "Accidents can still happen when you're in the mountains -- even when you're making good decisions. We felt prepared. We felt we had the right experience and the right gear. Risk is always there."
This mission was the first live-hoist mission for Leturno, Williams and Leflar.
"The benefit to the Guardsmen and the mountain rescue teams in this sort of effort is priceless," said Lt. Col. Joshua Day, commander of the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Eagle, Colo., which trains U.S. and foreign pilots of all branches in high-risk, high-altitude flight. "We've worked with several different mountain rescue teams and county officials in Colorado. Being able to use the air support ties directly in with rescuer safety, and the Guard gets some of its most valuable training. It's a win-win for everyone."
Adam Pérou Hermans, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brian Wright and Alpine Rescue Team contributed to this story.