Life saving shout out
Skagway SAR crew assists in rescue of Haines hiker
By JEFF BRADY
A dramatic rescue of a hiker off the sheer west cliff of Mt. Ripinsky in Haines was aided by two members of the Skagway Search and Rescue squad who helped locate the man and communicated with him through the night before he was lifted off the cliff by a Coast Guard helicopter crew on the morning of Jan. 6.
The hiker, John Hutchins of Haines, had been up on the Mt. Ripinsky trail on the afternoon of Jan. 5. From his hospital bed last week, he told the Chilkat Valley News that he became disoriented as visibility worsened on his descent, falling twice. Initially he was swept down a slope by a small avalanche but was able to dig himself out and make a cell phone call to his dad. But when he lost contact and tried to move to get better service, he fell backwards, head-over-heels, about 400 feet down a steeper slope. He heard his back snap, lost his snowshoes and gloves, but luckily ended up on a small ledge. From there he saw he was on the cliff high above the Haines Highway, and was able to call police at 2:15 p.m.
This set in motion a series of rescue operations coordinated by Alaska State Trooper Josh Benz, who called the Skagway Fire Department about 4:30 p.m. asking if they had anything they could offer, immediately. After checking with Fire Chief Jeremy Simmons if it would be okay for them to go, SAR members Colin Aikman and Ken Graham assembled a crew to go over to Haines about 6 p.m. They were driven over in the SERV-U boat by Matt O’Boyle, along with SAR volunteers AJ Conley, Chris Potter, Karl VanHalle, and Amanda McCutcheon.
At the command post at the Haines Fire Department, Aikman said they learned that Hutchins had been able to text his position before his iPhone battery died. It approximated his position at the base of the cliff. A mountain rescue crew from Haines was far above him already and found his tracks going over the cliff and were not comfortable descending the cliff in the dark. At about 10:30 p.m. Aikman and Graham headed out with Haines’ Scott Sundberg and John Binger, knowing that Hutchins could not possibly be at the base of the 1,300-foot cliff, or he would be dead. He had to be somewhere on or above the cliff.
An iPhone’s GPS may be able to approximate exact latitude and longitude, but it can’t nail down elevation. And it would take a rescue crew to find out exactly where Hutchins was.
“We went out to try and see if we could make voice contact with him,” Aikman said.
They started up the hill at about 4.5 Mile Haines Highway and hiked about a mile and a half, bushwhacking in 6-8 inches of fresh snow. They arrived at the base of the cliff at about 1:30 a.m.
Ken Graham and Colin Aikman back home in the Skagway Fire Hall.
“We set off the air horn, and immediately he answered us,” Aikman said. “’Hey, I’m here!’ he said, clear as a bell.”
They were at the 1500-foot level, but the sound was faint and they weren’t sure how high Hutchins was. They kept the air horn signaling on the hour through the night. The Haines men went back to base, but the Skagway men stayed. They were well equipped for winter survival with tent, sleeping bags, camp stove and fuel, and some power bars – along with all the ropes and rescue gear, their “24-hour packs” weighed about 65 pounds each. Their mission was to hopefully get to him and stabilize him medically.
Graham said they guessed Hutchins was about 500 feet above them, but in the morning light they discovered he was much higher. They had heard a couple of avalanches come down around them in the night, but Hutchins was still alive and communicating. The weather had cleared and they were able to actually talk to him the next morning. He said he was above a line of trees.
“We had to shout but it was pretty amazing how clear we could hear each other,” Aikman said.
They climbed around to the side of the base of the cliff to a point where they thought they could finally see him. Coast Guard arrived in Haines with their chopper at about 7:30 a.m. but the fog came down. Graham and Aiken said they were able to get up above tree line above the fog, so when the helicopter finally did take off about 8:30 a.m., they were able to guide the crew up through clouds to their position.
Aikman continued: “We talked
them up to where we thought he was, and we were right in line with him. They were searching around for him… and it was obvious they weren’t finding him, so we asked Coast Guard to back away from the cliff. It was really loud and they were knocking down avalanches, small slough avalanches… You just couldn’t hear anything, so we asked them to back off so we could ask Keith how close they were to (him) and get a better sense of where he was. And just as they were backing off, their spotlight shot up and you could see him…. He was dressed in black and looked like a rock.”
To make the rescue along the tight cliffside, the Coast Guard chopper then had to go away and dump fuel to make it lighter for a hoist. Unfortunately, this occurred as the weather was clearing, and by the time they returned it started to sock in. But the chopper stayed and they got him. Both Skagway men said it was pretty cool seeing the rescue swimmer coming down through the clouds on a cable. It took them about 15 minutes.
Graham said Hutchins was stuck on a 65-70 degree slope and just happened to stop in the right place. The Skagway men had scouted a possible ice route to get to him, but said it would have been dangerous.
“They (Coast Guard) said ‘we got him’, and we cheered and gave each other high fives,” Aikman said. “He may not have been a rescue if they hadn’t done that.”
In the CVN interview, Hutchins said he was able to shift his position just enough throughout the night to keep warm without falling.
The two Skagway SAR members said people hiking at any time of year need to prepare for what might happen. Anyone hiking to Upper Lake who goes off trail to look at something could be at risk.
“Nobody ever plans on getting stuck or getting hurt,” Graham said, “so if you have something on you to help get you through – a head lamp, extra layers, food and water – that’s going to increase your chances.”
They said Hutchins had some cookies to sustain him but not much else. The cell phone helped save him, but it is never a guarantee. People think cell phones can be a substitute for essentials like a compass, knife and signaling device, but cell service can be spotty and batteries die.
“Definitely take at least a day pack every time you are out there,” Aikman said. “It sounds silly until you are that person, or out there looking for that person.”
They also stressed that anyone taking a hike should let people know where you are going and let people know when you plan to come back, “and stick to those two things.”
Missy Tyson is SE DOT Employee of the Year
Missy Tyson, the state Department of Transportation’s maintenance and operations foreman in Skagway, was honored recently as Southeast Region 2010 Employee of the Year.
In a memo announcing the award, SE Regional Director Gary Davis listed some of the comments that came in from her fellow employees:
• Such a pleasure to work with because of her attitude to learn, listen, works to make the system better, takes care of the team, and is always working to make it right.
• The person is brave enough to stand up to traditional people, and make corrections that are necessary.
• Did exceptional job this year with numerous unsolicited compliments about the work and leadership from the community.
• Improved the working conditions, increased productivity, and is providing a higher level of service to the public.
• There is an inclusive relationship with the employees, their opinions are considered when making decisions on work issues.
• She has worked side by side with her crew improving Dyea Road, arranging equipment, procuring the necessary materials and equipment, and organizing the work, making sure it was done right.
• The caliber of person selected this year is what makes DOT&PF look good.
Tyson said they “tricked” her into going down to Juneau last month, and she was “very surprised” when her name was announced.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without my crew,” she said. “They don’t get enough recognition. These guys work really hard to keep this pass open.”
Tyson, who was born and raised in Juneau, has been with DOT for 17 years. She moved here in November 2009 to take the Skagway position.
Above, Gary Franzen, chief of SE region maintenance and operations, left, and SE Regional Directors Gary Davis congratulate Skagway’s Missy Tyson, middle, on her award. DOT photo