Gypsum, Colorado, –
GYPSUM, Colo. – It's been three days since they saw an enduring sign of civilization.
Tired, cold, hungry, and weak, the two women make their way downhill to a tiny creek to quench their day-old thirst.
In the two days leading up to this moment, Gayla Carney and Jana Addison, experienced hikers and teachers taking full advantage of their summer break, had ascended 14,345-foot Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range in southern Colorado.
But as they made their way down the mountain Thursday, July 9, something went terribly wrong.
"We somehow got off trail coming down," Carney said. "The trail wasn't marked well and there were lots of loose boulders. We think we were just in too big of a hurry to get down and we weren't looking up from the loose boulders under our feet often enough to take in our surroundings. By the time we realized we were on the wrong side of the ridge, it had become too steep and loose to backtrack. It all happened very quickly!"
Armed with only Carney's pack (Addison had shed hers before reaching the summit, with the intention of picking it back up on the way down) and years of mountaineering experience, the women quickly tuned in to their survival instincts.
Along with a few snacks, Carney had a water bladder, water treatment tablets, a whistle, first-aid supplies, an emergency blanket, and a lighter.
"We got out our map and compass as soon as we realized we were on the wrong side of the ridge," Carney said. "We contacted authorities to let them know where we were and to get some direction on the best route out of Blanca Basin."
The two weren't able to descend below tree line before darkness set in that Thursday.
"It was very slow going down the steep crevice we were in, and there were a few very scary moments!" Carney said. "We had to hunker down under a rock in the boulder field that night. It was very cold and we got little sleep."
The next day, the pair planned to follow Blanca Creek out of the basin and into the town of Blanca, but terrain was difficult.
"Time after time we'd get boxed in with steep drop offs and have to back track, bushwhacking all the way," Carney said. "Friday afternoon, a commercial helicopter flew over us and supposedly had our exact coordinates. We were told to stay where we were, so we did."
Feeling confident rescue was imminent, the two split an apple, the last of their food.
"We know that rescue teams were close to us as it was getting dark (Friday) night, because we heard their gunshots," Carney said. "We blew our whistles, and were sure they must have heard us. We just thought they'd probably set up camp because it was too dangerous to travel in the dark."
Despite lighting a fire and putting down several pine branches to sleep on, the night was again cold, and again, the women got little rest.
"The next morning, we thought the rescue team would make it to us quickly, but at around 8 a.m., we still hadn't heard anything," Carney said. "I turned on my phone and called the dispatcher. She told us to stay where we were even though we hadn't had any water since the previous afternoon."
However, despite their wobbly legs, they decided to go down to a creek to get water instead.
"We tied a bandanna to a tree limb where the helicopter had flown over the previous afternoon and we built cairns where we'd slept, then built more cairns about every 10 yards all the way down," Carney said. "We found an old mining cabin with easy water access and decided to build another fire and stay there, where we knew we'd have plenty of wood to burn and the water would be close."
Finally, after nearly three days and another dusk ascending, the women heard another sign of civilization: the zooming whump-whump beat of Black Hawk rotor blades in the sky.
Armed with a hoist, a jungle penetrator, and a combined 40 years of high-altitude flying experience, Colorado Army Guardsmen from the High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) lifted off from Gypsum, Colorado.
The helicopter and crew, call sign Talon 39, were alerted to the pair in distress via the Huerfano County Sheriff's Office, the Colorado National guard Joint Operations Center, and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.
Flight for Life had earlier located the two women and passed their coordinates to the sheriff and HAATS command. In the meantime, the helicopter and its crew headed to the incident command for a face to face.
"This decision was especially important in this case since we don't work with this county often and communication with the field teams was in question," said Army National Guard Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi, HAATS commander.
The sheriff directed the aircrew to a prominent terrain feature on the mountain and to the women's last known location.
Fifteen minutes after meeting with the incident commander, the HAATS crew located Carney and Addison in a gulley near the old mining cabin.
However, landing the helicopter nearby wasn't an option. This rescue would require skillfully maneuvering the aircraft above tree line.
"The insertion on the jungle penetrator is fairly simple in itself, but it's also one of the riskier operations that we conduct," said Colorado Army National Guard Sgt. Josiah Prunty, one of two crew chiefs on the mission. "It requires that the crew (pilots and crew chiefs) really be on their game and work together."
The jungle penetrator is a streamlined, two-seat platform that hooks directly to the hoist hook assembly attached to the helicopter, and is one of the primary tools for lowering or raising people through narrow openings, such as between trees in a forest.
Because the device is unique to military aircraft, the National Guard brings this added benefit to a search-and-rescue mission, Somogyi said.
"The hoist operator is always relaying information back to the pilots as to what the jungle penetrator is doing. Is it oscillating or spinning? How far away from the helicopter it is, how close to the ground it is," Prunty said. "It really requires that the pilots hold a steady hover over the drop point. This can be really difficult in windy conditions, which we see in the mountains frequently."
With turning rotor blades creating a whirlwind below, Prunty instructed Addison to sit on one of the fold-out seats with her legs out in front, wove a safety strap beneath her armpits and connected it back to the assembly, then instructed her to lean into the strap.
From there, Colorado Army National Guard Master Sgt. Cyril Isaacs, the second crew chief, hoisted Addison onto the hovering aircraft.
"As Jana was being strapped on to the hoist, I ran to get my pack and our trekking poles," Carney said in a thank-you message to the crew Aug. 13. "I will never forget how (Josiah) took me by the shoulders and told me they were going to get us back safely! (He) then had me look at the helicopter above me so that I could see that Jana was already safe in the helicopter."
Carney was then lifted into the hovering flying machine – but not before a "huge" bear hug between the crew chief and his passenger.
"You have no idea how much I need that right at that moment!" Carney said. "Thank you for making me feel as safe as possible in those terrifying moments! I will never, ever, ever forget it!"
"It truly is a crew effort," Prunty said. "You have to stay alert, be aware of the surroundings, and work together."
Though this mission was complete at 5 p.m. that Saturday in July, Carney and Addison weren't the only ones in the Sangre de Cristo Range who needed to be rescued that day.
This story is Part 1 in a 3-part series.