Ned Rozell: Stranded trio finds that patience pays off


Last of two parts

Pilot Sam Egli remained in the pilot's seat to help keep the helicopter pinned to the ground. Paskievitch pulled on his coat and squeezed out the door. Knowing the Jet Ranger has on its underside three metal tie-in points, he had a plan.

Using a Sawzall, which he carries to hack through corroded fasteners during equipment removal, Paskievitch sawed through the 8-foot-long, 2-inch-diameter aluminum pipe that had been Lopez's antenna mast. He cut it into three pieces, each a little more than two feet long.

Using a pick and shovel, he dug three trenches that would hold the buried pipes at right angles to the helicopter. Each trench was about 3 feet deep in the thawed rocks around the crater vent.

Paskievitch also had stout climbing rope, a good length of it, because he thought they might need to sling parts off the mountain back to Baked Mountain huts. He tied a clove hitch at the center of each pipe, dropped it in its trench and cut a thin channel for the rope in the direction of the helicopter. Then he backfilled the trenches with rocks and stomped on top. To finish, he tensioned the three ropes with a trucker's hitch.

"(The anchors) were set pretty good as these things go," he said. "It took about three hours. Whenever I got hot and started to sweat, I laid down and paced myself."

The weather worsened during the time Paskievitch secured the ship, so much that he found himself wearing a suit of ice armor as he slipped back into the helicopter. He took off his outerwear and stowed it in a trash bag, which he stored at his feet in the back seat, hoping his clothes would stay frozen and would retain some of their insulating value.

With their shelter secured, the three slowed down for a long wait. They each wiggled into their own sleeping bags, with Lopez and Paskievitch also slipping bivvy sacks over the top of their bags. Lopez had two liters of extra water; they decided to stash that under the seat for future use, while adding snow to their water bottles each time they exited the helicopter. They had a decent amount of food, even a slice of leftover pizza from a Naknek restaurant. Lopez also had a quart-size bag of trail mix and bars, Egli had a supply of survival food in the helicopter and Paskievitch had a large bag of granola and other edibles.

"I don't go anywhere without cheese," he said.

Equipped with three satellite phones and several radio systems including hand-helds, they started a routine of regular calls. Their early communications were to Egli's base of operations in King Salmon; to Michelle Coombs, duty scientist of the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage; and to Lopez's boyfriend David Fee, the acting coordinating scientist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory's branch in Fairbanks.

"I said, 'We're probably stuck for the night; please call my family so they can pray for us,' " Lopez said.

The helicopter grew heavier by the hour. Ice formed a shell several inches thick, with up to 8 inches growing on the helicopter's windward side. They opened the doors as few times as possible, only leaving the helicopter to relieve themselves.

"When I went out one time, I kept getting knocked down by the wind," said Lopez, the petit member of the group.

After 24 hours with no signs of things getting better, and realizing that worsening weather or the loss of a helicopter door could turn their situation into life or death, the three decided to request a rescue. Their only other option, walking down the heavily crevassed mountain with a few dozen feet of visibility, was not a viable one.

Egli activated his Emergency Locator Transmitter. Detecting his signal, Alaska Air National Guardsmen at the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, operating out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, started to move. Within six hours, an HC-130 was circling Mount Mageik and the pilot of a Pave Hawk helicopter was touching down in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes waiting for a clearing in weather. Also in the area was Bob Egli, Sam's son, who piloted another Egli Air Haul helicopter.

After their second night on the mountain, Paskievitch noticed a clear patch of sky overhead. He radioed that information down to the pilot of the Pave Hawk, ready in the valley below.

The large helicopter did not find that hole but made overpasses for about three hours until another emerged. When the pilot radioed that he could finally see them from above, Egli, Paskievitch and Lopez exited the Jet Ranger and secured the doors.

The Pave Hawk landed on a flat spot on a summit glacier a few hundred yards from the Jet Ranger, which then resembled an ice sculpture. Two climbers on ropes attached to the Pave Hawk hiked over to the stranded trio. The rescuers told Egli, Paskievitch and Lopez to grab the rope and follow them back to the Pave Hawk.

"We were inside the helicopter in two minutes when I thought it would take forever," Lopez said. "The glacier looked bigger to me."

Shortly after they were inside the Pave Hawk and the rescuers closed the door, the rescue helicopter was on its way to King Salmon. Their ordeal was over, and just in time.

"They took advantage of that very brief window (of clear weather)," Paskievitch said. "The first time the site was accessible in a casual, routine way was six days after we came off."

Back home and safe in Fairbanks, Lopez remembers a "pretty mellow" wait in the plastic bubble clinging to a mountain.

"Because I was with really experienced people and we had shelter I was OK," Lopez said a few weeks after the incident. "Sam and John were really calm and collected and they liked to joke around. I never felt scared."

She learned a lot by watching Paskievitch install improvised deadman anchors in the mountain. She also appreciated how he would exit his side door of the helicopter and walk over to chip ice from her door when she needed to get out.

"I was very lucky to be stuck with him."

As for Paskievitch, he appreciated Egli's seasoned decision to remain on the mountain in poor conditions, the professionalism of the rescue team, and that he got a chance to see the Pave Hawk refueled by an HC-130 on the way to King Salmon.

"I was very impressed and thankful."

At the end of the adventure, after arriving safely at Sam Egli's hanger in King Salmon, Paskievitch reached into his pack and felt the plastic bag that contained the slice of pizza he'd saved for when they might really need it. He pulled out the Ziploc, opened it, and ate the pizza for lunch.

Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.