The two climbers could hear the thudding from a rescue helicopter Thursday morning as it strained to reach their position, a narrow ridge about 11,000 feet up Mount Hayes.
But snow was blowing. It was the same storm that covered their tracks the day before and prevented a safe return from near the summit. It was not letting up.
So Joel Dopson prayed.
As he watched the weather and made sure his locator beacon was transmitting, the whiteout conditions began to clear.
"I could see the clouds moving away from the mountain, just as if the hand of God was pushing them away," said Dopson, a major in the Air Force and an F-16 pilot.
A few hours and daring aerial maneuvers later, Dopson, 36, and climbing partner Andrew Croan, 25, were standing on the tarmac at Eielson Air Force Base south of Fairbanks hugging their families and thanking their rescuers.
With his two children wrapped around his legs, Dopson spoke quietly to his wife while they both cried a little.
"When you're doing something dangerous like that, something that challenging, you think about your family a lot," Dopson said.
AN ALLURING CHALLENGE
To the south across the Tanana Valley, the mostly flat bowl in which Fairbanks sits, Mount Hayes, at 13,832 feet, is dominant on the horizon as the tallest mountain in the eastern Alaska Range.
A 13-year mountaineer, Dopson had considered climbing Hayes since he first visited Fairbanks in 2004.
"I've been looking at it for a while," he said. "Really the entire range, having viewed it from town and from the air, it's just a massive wilderness with incredible beauty and some mystique," Dopson said by phone Friday.
Dopson said he met Croan in February 2010 while on separate climbing expeditions in the Interior. They started plans for a trip up the mountain's East Ridge route in October 2010, Dopson said.
Part of that plan included a piece of technology Dopson wanted to carry for the first time: a beacon.
"The decision to carry it was based on the seriousness of this mountain and this route," he said. "That was our lifeline as far as if we got into an unclimbable, unsolvable situation, which we did end up in."
Hiking up a steep snow ramp from their base camp on Trident Glacier and roped together, the men planted anchors as the wind picked up.
"With those severe winds buffeting around, we would hunker down when the big gusts would come," Dopson said.
When they reached a point called Levi's Bump at 10,500 feet, it was so windy they couldn't set up their tent, Dopson said. They dug a snow cave on the side of the mountain and spent Monday night there, he said.
The pair rested Tuesday after carving out a spot for the tent and setting it up. On Wednesday morning, it was time for their summit bid.
First was a quick descent to a mountain saddle, then up the East Ridge. Under their feet, the terrain varied from a foot of fresh snow to solid ice, he said.
"The day started out almost clear with light clouds from the top of the mountain and low wind," he said. "And as we ascended higher, those clouds from a system from the south became elongated and decreased visibility."
They made it to about 13,000 feet before deciding it was time to turn back. It was 4 p.m. and they needed to make it to camp before dark, Dopson said.
"Basically during the descent, it was a whiteout," he said.
First Dopson slipped, fell about five feet, and stopped himself from sliding farther, he said. Less than half an hour later, Croan slipped and stopped himself on a 50- degree slope after 10 or 15 feet, Dopson said.
The danger they were facing had become more apparent with the two falls, Dopson said, and it didn't help that the snow was erasing their earlier tracks.
They stopped. From about 9 p.m. until midnight, they dug out a two-person snow cave. Inside, they huddled together with all of their warmest clothes on and water bottles crammed with snow in their jackets to produce much-needed water.
ACTIVATING THE BEACON
They slept in fits and starts, awoke about 7 a.m. Thursday, and by about 9 a.m., Dopson and Croan decided they had to activate the beacon, Dopson said.
It wasn't an easy decision. The thought of asking for help didn't sit well with them. They didn't want to risk anyone else's lives.
But they were off their planned route. It was obvious that the danger of avalanches was high, Dopson said.
Two other majors, Brian Kile and Matt Harper with the Alaska Air Guard, were flying in an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter on a support mission about 20 miles to the north, they said by phone Friday.
Eielson Range Command radioed that two climbers were in trouble. They flew to the lower part of Hayes Glacier in about 10 minutes while an HC-130 flew nearby, searching for the climbers.
"It was a constant effort all morning into midafternoon making attempts," Kile said.
At first, they couldn't make it above 6,000 feet. But the climbers could hear them.
"It really just gave us great hope," Dopson said.
The plan shifted to a ground-based rescue attempt. The pilots returned to Eielson, picked up two more pararescuemen, and headed back to the mountain, Kile said.
"As we headed back out there, we could see the weather was clearing, and as we got closer we could see the top of the mountain," Kile said.
They followed a clear route up Trident Glacier to about 10,000 feet, where they saw the climbers.
"We were standing on the ridge, waving, and we saw the helicopter and they saw us," Dopson said.
"It was just kind of misty and blowing snow, and there was a strong flow out of the southwest," Harper said. "It was just kind of the right timing."
They dropped two rescuers, some equipment and fuel -- about 2,000 pounds total -- to make the helicopter lighter and more maneuverable.
They had a combined 16 years' experience flying Pave Hawks, but neither man had ever attempted to land and pick up anyone from 11,000 feet, they said.
The ridge wasn't wide enough to land the entire chopper. Kile, on the controls with Harper assisting, made a low pass over the ridge. Then he touched its front wheels on the ridge, as the tail hovered over a 3,000-foot sheer cliff.
A pararescueman attached to a belay system jumped out, ran to the climbers and hooked their climbing harnesses to his own.
Meanwhile, a 40 mph wind caused the helicopter to move around and lift slightly off the ridge.
"It seemed like eternity, to be hovering like that," Harper said.
About 30 seconds from when they touched down, the two climbers were safe inside and getting an evaluation from the rescuers.
The pilots refueled immediately from the HC-130, then picked up the other men and equipment and headed for home.
Back at Eielson Air Force Base, where Dopson is known by his call sign "Diesel," the Air Force major's emotions poured out, his wife said.
"He was just whispering in my ear he was so thankful to see our faces," said Christy Dopson, who baked her husband's rescuers chocolate chip cookies Friday.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.