I’m reposting this because it was 24 years ago today!
I’m not even supposed to be here, I thought.
The helicopter rotors increased power and a blinding snowstorm erupted through the open hatch, covering me with ice. I looked down at my suit jacket at the small flakes glittering like diamonds, and how they almost instantly melted away leaving me damp.
The helicopter gained altitude. A moment later it was thundering over the snow covered trees and into the teeth of a gathering winter storm. My part of the mission was over. There was nothing left for me to do but sit and stay out of the way.
Eight hours before I’d been on the road and heading for Denver. As County Emergency Manager, I oftentimes attended courses. I’d left home early, not expecting to get to the class at all. I’d watched the weather forecast the night before and we were due to get a foot of snow in the Valley. The snow in the mountains would be measured in yards.
And it was hunting season. People from all over the United States would be up in the mountains, and they’d be oblivious to what the Rocky Mountains could do to them. I’d spent a fair chunk of my life walking the mountains and I knew they could kill you in an instant.
And it didn’t surprise me when my cellphone rang. The Sheriff was on the other end, asking me to come into the Emergency Operations Center and start running rescue ops. I stopped, turned, and headed for Conejos. As I drove, I put the time to good use and made a few phone calls.
My first call went to the County Search and Rescue Director. He was already rounding up snowcats and snowmobiles as needed. I already had his first rescue and was sending them up above La Jara Reservoir. There were hunters up there who couldn’t get out.
But I knew they were the low hanging fruit, so to speak. Some hunters hiked to some remote, rough places. Toss snow in and the only way they’d get out was by air.
My second phone call was to Larry Howell, Director of the Valley High Angle Rescue Team. These were the climbers and rope people. They were used to getting into tight places by air, conducting rescue, and getting people out. I figured I’d be needing them before the day was done.
My final call was to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. “I need to request a Chinook from the Army,” I said. The rescue team had trained with them extensively, and they were familiar with how the Army chopper worked, and the Army was familiar with us.
My contact at OEM said she’d try to whistle one up for me.
By the time I got to the Sheriff’s Office, it was already snowing heavily up in the mountains and had been since late the night before. A check with the lodge in Platoro had already revealed that there was over two feet of snow and it was still coming. One of our imperatives was to open the road up the mountain to the remote community. There was still a lot of people up there, and it needed to stay open. The county road crew had already headed up with a bulldozer and grader to do that.
Running an EOC is actually rather simple. It’s keeping information flowing, finding resources, and making sure everything is documented. So far, things were as normal as I could expect. We were keeping roads open so those that could were getting out of the mountains, and those that couldn’t were being rescued by the county SAR team.
All that changed about eleven when a call from Platoro came in. A group of hunters in a remote area had managed to hike out. They’d been forced to leave one of their number behind, an elderly man who had trouble walking. Their plan had been to get to Platoro, get horses, and then return for him. By the time they got to Platoro, the snow was so bad that the horses couldn’t even get through.
I called the High Angle Rescue Team and told them to come on down. I then called OEM, and asked about my helicopter.
“What do you mean there aren’t any?” was my next question.
Well, I wasn’t the only one with emergencies and people needing rescue. I found it incredible that all the Army helicopters that could operate effectively at high altitude were working elsewhere. The best I could do was get on a list for the next available bird.
Thirty minutes later, I got a phone call. They’d gotten not an Army bird, but an Air Force Pave Low out of Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque. It was on its way. About an hour and a half later, it arrived.
They needed to know one thing. Where was the landing pad was in Platoro. The summer before, I’d worked closely with the locals and AmeriCorp to establish one. An area had been set out, landing lights placed on it, and designated for Flight for Life helicopters. We’d overbuilt the pad so the massive Pave Low shouldn’t be a problem. Trouble was, it wasn’t on any maps yet and I was the only one around who knew where it was.
The Air Force needed me as a guide. Additionally, the hunters didn’t have a GPS reading for where the camp was. We’d need them to guide us in. We’d have to fly up, pick them up, and then fly to the camp.
I telephoned up to the lodge and told them we were coming up with an Air Force chopper and could they clear the pad for us. They assured us they would, and would be waiting for us.
The helicopter showed up about two in the afternoon. The days were already getting short, and time was working against us. We meet the chopper in an open field just east of the courthouse. As we filed aboard, an Airman pointed to sitting location, and told everyone to strap in. All except me. I’d ride up with the pilots for the first part of the trip. That meant donning a large set of headphones, and hanging on.
As we lifted off, I got a good look at the mountains. The storm that the weather service had forecast was coming in. The clouds looked like a dark menacing wall piling up over the ridges form north to south. It was only a matter of time before they came spilling down and dumping more snow.
The helicopter flew straight up the canyon, following the still flowing Conejos River. I’d never been on a Pave Low before. Most of my experience in helicopters was the small Army Huey. Where the Huey moved like a sportscar, and winds pushed it around, the Pave Low was more like a truck. It was large, powerful, and it seemed immovable. It was the perfect bird for the job.
We’d just crossed where Highway 17 and the Platoro Road intersect when the first snow hit us. The windshield was almost instantly covered in moisture, and the pilots turned on their wipers. The steady thumping of the blades seemed comforting, because now the helicopter seemed to be pitching a little. We were racing into the teeth of a mountain blizzard.
By the time we reached Platoro, it was snowing steadily. It wasn’t heavy yet, but the promise of things to come was certainly in the air.
The folks at the lodge, assisted by the hunters, had cleared the landing pad. I was relieved to see the lights worked, and with a simple “There it is, about your two o’clock,” my piece of the mission came to an end.
I was now cargo. Once we landed, I made my way to the aft portion of the helicopter, slapped the High Angle Rescue Team Leader on the shoulder, and told him it was his puppy now.
I sat down next to one of the team members, a lawyer from Alamosa. Interestingly, he was my ex-wife’s lawyer, but in spite of that, he was a nice guy, and I liked him. He and I were going to start liking each other a lot more in the next few minutes.
Two of the members of the hunting party came aboard, and the Air Force PJs pointed them forward where the Rescue Leader now stood behind the pilots station, Each was handed headphones, and the crew chief did a quick walk around to make sure everyone was strapped in. Satisfied, he said something over the intercom.
A moment later, the whine of the jet engines increased, and the helicopter blades began moving faster. Snow blew in through the open back hatch ramp, covering me. Cold air blew in. The helicopter rose up into the sky, and I looked out the back ramp. Our visibility was terrible, maybe a mile if we were lucky.
Now the pilot was arcing away from Platoro, and flew the the large helicopter up through a canyon that snaked back and forth. I felt the helicopter shudder as the storm winds caught it, and hanging gear swayed back and forth.
It shuddered again, and this time it yawed slightly from side to side. Like a boat sailing through a gale, the helicopter was struggling through the storm. I began to realize what a precarious situation I was in. If something should happen, I had nothing to survive with up here. I was dressed in a three piece suit, and that would provide little protection against the elements. I had no warm weather gear, no blankets. Nothing. I would be entirely at the mercy of the rest of the team.
Assuming I survived the crash.
I looked out the back. Visibility had dropped. Fog and snow was obscuring the terrain and all I could see was the rocks and trees of the nearer canyon wall. It was a few seconds before I realized that my mouth had gone dry, and my muscles were tight. My pulse was pounding in my ears, drowning out the thunder of the helicopter engines.
Suddenly the helicopter spun to one side, the sudden motion tossing me forward. Only the restraining harness kept me from being tossed across the cargo bay. As sudden as the motion came, it went the opposite direction, slamming me back in the seat.
The lawyer next to me grabbed my hand.
I didn’t pull it away!
I looked over at him. His eyes were wide with alarm. He had to be thinking the same thing I was. That visibility was so poor we’d almost gone into the side of the canyon.
The helicopter was catching the full force of the wind now, and was seeing some anxious glances among the crew. Everyone grabbed again as the helicopter spun around again. This time the straps bit into my waist and shoulders, and the lawyer and I were hanging onto each other like two men in a raft going over Niagara Falls.
I thought these things had terrain avoidance radar, I remembered thinking. Maybe it wasn’t the terrain. And then I realized what was going on.
The wind was catching the tail rotor and causing it to stall out. This caused the helicopter to spin about till the rotor caught and stabilized us. There was a very real danger we’d get slammed into the canyon walls. I noticed a hurried conference up front between Larry and the hunters.
The helicopter rose a little, up and out of the canyon. It was still being buffeted but it no longer felt like we were riding the rapids. A moment later the Rescue Team leader came back to where I was sitting.
“Rich,” he said, “we think we’re within a quarter mile of where they were camped. What I want to do is take Hawkins and two of the PJs (Air Force Para Rescue experts. These guys are some of the best in the world), and try to reach him.”
“We locate him, and you guys come and get us in the morning.”
I looked out the back ramp. They had maybe forty five minutes of daylight left. Not much time to find an old man stuck in the wilds of Colorado.
It seemed the only shot we had. I knew the rescue team could handle a night up here. Howell and his team had trained to survive in these conditions, and the Air Force PJs are certainly trained for this.
Larry went back forward, spoke with the pilot, and a few minutes later, the helicopter turned towards a barren hilltop. I looked out the window. We had a good hundred meters of space to drop them into and the winds had swept the barren area relatively free of snow.
Lines were quickly rigged on the back of the helicopter, and as the pilot brought the helicopter into hover. The lines were tossed to the ground. Larry hooked up and with a signal from the crew chief, dropped out the back and down towards the ground. Seconds behind him, Hawkins went.
The PJs hooked up, and dropped down the ground maybe fifty feet below. A few seconds later, the lines were reeled in. Power was applied to the engines, and the helicopter began rising away from the ridge. I remember wondering if I’d just killed these men.
The helicopter blades caught the air, pushed it down, and the stench of jet exhaust filled the cabin. The smell made my stomach lurch, and I opened the vomit bag I’d been holding onto. I heaved a bag full of steaming stew into the bag. A sound next to me, and I looked at the lawyer turned rescuer. He was about to throw up, and I handed him the bag. He vomited into it, his lunch mixing with mine. He handed the bag back. and I spun it closed.
A few minutes later we were descending out of the cloud deck and into the canyon. The snow slowed, and stopped. Along with it, the wind stopped and the ride was smooth after that.
I was thankful when we circled in for landing. It was getting dark already. Below us, I could see two sheriffs’ cars waiting, and a couple of flares marking the landing area. We landed and the pilot shut down the chopper long enough for us all to get out. As I stumbled out, the Sheriff met me at the bottom of the ramp. One of the deputies was with him, and handed the young deputy the bag of puke. He held it up like what the heck is this, and then thanked me profusely for such a wonderful gift, and told me to take care of it myself.
I briefed the Sheriff, and told him we’d be running ops first thing again in the morning.
Dawn found me back in the EOC. Things were slower today. We’d gotten a lot of people out yesterday, and all that remained were a few stray hunters that hadn’t screamed for help yet. Those that did had the county SAR team show up to get them out.
We got contact with the High Angle Rescue Team and the Air Force PJs about 10 AM. They’d failed to locate the old man. They were pretty sure that the hunters who had led up into the canyon really didn’t know where they’d been to start with. With more snow coming in, the Air Force came back and rescued our rescue team.
More snow that evening. By this time, I was suspecting this would turn into a body recovery.
Dawn the next day. The storms had moved out and we had a clear, cold day. The Air Force was back, and this time they were being supported with a C-130 cargo plane. Both the helicopter and the plane searched the area. Along about 11 AM word came that the C-130 had spotted an SOS stamped out in the snow, and a solitary figure waving to them in the middle of a meadow.
By 11:30 AM, the helicopter landed. We’d found our hunter.
He was taken up to the SLV Medical Center and checked out. He was in very good shape, all things considered. He’d been a woodsman for a long time and knew how to survive. I drove up to the hospital and picked him up. An hour later, he was reunited with his friends.
About three weeks later, I got a videotape in the mail. They had left the video camera behind, and he’d made a record of his adventure. It started with his last will and testament. He’d told me he was pretty sure that he was going to die.
Thankfully, he didn’t.