Even the most experienced climbers are rarely a match for high-mountain storms. In June 2008, a freak blizzard dumped two feet of snow on Mount Rainier in Washington, stranding three hikers at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue Coordination Center dispatched a Chinook from 244th Aviation Brigade, Fort Lewis, Wash., to rescue the climbers.
Weather, elevation and rapidly deteriorating conditions faced the Chinook crew preparing for the mission. "We received a call from the National Park Service on the condition of the victims," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bryan Campbell, pilot in command. "They were suffering from severe hypothermia, and transport was critical." The hikers were near Anvil Rock, a large outcropping at the edge of the Camp Muir snowfield. The area was hit with two feet of fresh snow, and 70-mph winds were creating drifts of up to five feet.
In near-zero visibility, the Chinook crew took off under instrument flight rules. "There was a cloud layer at 2,000 feet. and extended up to 10,000 feet., where we broke out of it," explained Campbell. "We were under instrument and vectored toward the mountain by air traffic control till we reached the site."
Once on target, the Chinook crew used a jungle penetrator to combat the high winds and hoist two of the victims along with a Park Service ranger into the Chinook. The third victim perished from exposure, after using himself to shield the other climbers against the horrific storm. With the victims safely on board, the Chinook flew to the hospital pad on Madigan Army Medical Center, where the climbers are now recovering from their ordeal.
According to the crew, a CH-47D has to perform virtually any rescue on Mount Rainier above 10,000 ft. "The Chinook is the perfect platform for this type of rescue," said Campbell. "Not only does it have the power needed to perform rescue operations at high altitude, and sometimes warm conditions, but it also has plenty of room in the back. We will regularly have a rescue team on board, which is usually six rangers, our two flight engineers and one or two medical personnel, and, of course, the victims." Additionally, the Chinook carries a search and rescue kit, consisting of climbing gear and oxygen, and a litter kit in case victims are not ambulatory.
"The additional advantage of the Chinook as a rescue aircraft is flight capability," said Campbell. "The Chinook carries enough fuel to allow for several hours on station, and it is also an extremely stable IFR platform. Without the IFR capability, we would not have been able to complete this particular mission. In my opinion, the Chinook is the perfect bird for this type of mission."
"We prepare, prepare, prepare," said Campbell. "Our unit, along with the Park Service, practices search and rescue missions regularly. Our pilots and flight engineers are requalified annually. For this particular mission, I’m glad we were able to get the wife and friend to safety; however, it’s hard for us when we lose a climber."
For the thousands of hikers and for the climbers who make the excursion to the high peak of Mount Rainier, the Chinook rescue crew pilot in command, Bryan Campbell, pilot Rich Bovey, and flight engineers Bob Copeman and Jason Loveday — along with the other Chinook crews stationed in the greater northwest, could be called on to use their training and expertise at a moment’s notice. They are prepared to meet any challenge and overcome any obstacle, for the safety of others. — By Tom Marinucci