Rescuing the Rescuers
It was August 14th, 1976 and Al and I were in our mountaineering heyday. We left Spokane for Mt. St. Helens Friday afternoon, climbed to the top of Dog’s Head to spend the night, and then woke to one of the most glorious and inspiring sunrises ever. We reached the summit on a calm clear and warm summer day without a clue that in less than five years that summit wouldn’t be there. Then we traversed down Ape Glacier to practice our two-man crevasse rescue techniques (a difficult scenario where one person is dangling on the end of a rope and the other has to haul them out). By the end of the day, we felt as though we’d gotten a good workout. Nevertheless, we drove down to Mt. Hood to climb it on Sunday.
August is late in the climbing season. Snow conditions can be mushy and rockfall risks increase dramatically on northwest volcanoes (“rotten rock”). The “hourglass” section (now known as the “Pearly Gates”) of the (then) standard route was notorious for nasty rockfall once the sun hit the loose rocks and thawed their ice “glue”. For that reason (and to beat the heat from the sun bouncing off the snow), climbers generally begin their summer climbs early (around midnight) so they can enjoy a summit sunrise and be down the riskiest part of the mountain before things warm up.
Having arrived late and being tired, we slept in later than normal and woke after daybreak near the Timberline parking lot (5,800’). But we knew we’d make good time and didn’t need long to get ready, so there was never any doubt that we go for it. We were on our way before 7:00AM. It was an ideal climbing morning – brisk, clear, calm, and beautiful. Looking up the mountain we could see several climbing groups, the lowest of which were already approaching the “Hogsback”- the ridge that connects Crater Rock to the Summit pitch (picture and diagram below).
Al and I met as instructors at the USAF Survival School at Fairchild AFB in Airway Heights (just west of Spokane). We’d been climbing together for a couple of years and had climbed Mt. Hood a couple of times before. Al was still in the Air Force and I was a student at Eastern Washington University (Cheney, WA). Our craziness in doing two climbs in one weekend was based upon our conditioning plan for an ascent on Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak (which we did the next summer). While we weren’t the most experienced climbers around, we were in good shape and we knew the outdoors. Both of us were trained in the military as field medics and I had completed EMT training and qualified as a “Level II” Emergency Medical Technician. I had also organized Washington’s first Search and Rescue Post for the Explorers and we were both great believers in the Boy Scout motto – “be prepared”.
Some climbers approach a mountain as a long uphill hike and with good weather carry little more than a fanny pack. We wouldn’t start up any glaciated mountain without the right safety gear and we firmly believe in helmets. Since we were climbing for conditioning, carrying additional weight wasn’t a negative. Thus, we had far more gear than any other pair of climbers would carry on that climb (except in winter. We could have easily spent the night on the summit except that we both had to be back in Spokane by Monday morning.
I could tell you how fast we climbed, but you’d think I was just bragging. But, since it’s part of the story, I must tell you that we caught two other groups before they reached the summit. In truth, that was only partly because we almost ran up the mountain. I’m not sure how many people reached the summit that day, but it was in the dozens. Since the route from the Hogsback to the summit is funneled such that only one group can pass at a time, the last groups going up had to wait while others came down.
The Hogsback is between Crater Rock and the summit, above the “Devil’s Kitchen”. As indicated, the fall occurred close to the summit. Al and I followed a route close to the yellow and orange lines.
We passed the last group as they prepared to climb from the shrund to the notch and there were others waiting to come down above the notch. Climbing from the top of the notch to the summit takes only 20-30 minutes. Having put off several breaks, we enjoyed a leisurely rest on the summit. We also wanted to give everyone else a chance to clear the route before we started down.
When we headed down from the summit, we could see that the last climber in the next-to-last group (we were the last) were just entering the notch. Normally, that would have meant that they would be at the shrund as we started through the notch, but instead they had moved less than 100’ by the time we caught up with them. The snow had softened and they were being very cautious. We could have easily climbed around them, but that wouldn’t have been safe or polite, so we waited and watched.
It was obvious that they were inexperienced, but they were properly equipped with helmets, rope, crampons (strap-on spikes for your boots) and ice axes. They had their best climber and leader at the rear (as they should) and he was encouraging them to proceed. The two climbers in front of him were having the most trouble, and the guy at the front of the rope was close to the shrund. There was another party of three climbers resting on the shelf where the Hogsback meets the shrund.
This is a view looking up
the Hogsback on Mt. Hood (at just over 10,000’). The route is
obvious and passes through the center “V” notch. The only
“technical” part of the whole climb is the crevasse (in this
case a “Bergshrund”) at the top of the Hogsback and the
section immediately above it through the notch. The primary hazard here is
rockfall coming from above the notch that it funnels down to the
climbers below the notch. Obviously, a fall between the notch
and the “shrund” is bad news since it will likely end in the
shrund itself. The steepest part of the
route is in the notch itself at 65˚-70˚; the Hogsback
above the shrund is 50˚-60˚.
This is a view looking up the Hogsback on Mt. Hood (at just over 10,000’). The route is obvious and passes through the center “V” notch. The only “technical” part of the whole climb is the crevasse (in this case a “Bergshrund”) at the top of the Hogsback and the section immediately above it through the notch.
The primary hazard here is rockfall coming from above the notch that it funnels down to the climbers below the notch. Obviously, a fall between the notch and the “shrund” is bad news since it will likely end in the shrund itself. The steepest part of the route is in the notch itself at 65˚-70˚; the Hogsback above the shrund is 50˚-60˚.
We waited for ten minutes – more time than it would normally take us to climb from the notch to the shrund – and the group had moved less than half a rope length. In that ten minutes, we watched nervously as rock tumbled off the Steele Cliffs (to the east) and had to shout a “ROCK!” warning twice for rocks coming down through the notch. We had decided that we were in the wrong place and it would be best for us to go ahead and climb around the slow group. But just as we were going to start, we heard more rocks coming and hollered another warning as a shower of fist size rocks came streaming by. We watched as they collided with the party below.
Three of the five climbers were hit. A helmet saved one guys life as a rock hit it with a loud thud. Another rock hit the next-to-last climber on the shoulder and a third rock hit the middle climber squarely in the back. All three laid still in the snow although the serenity of the mountain changed immediately as the cries of a woman echoed alarmingly. Luckily, the group didn’t fall, but that could have easily changed at any moment.
Since Al and I had just “mounted up”, we immediately dropped through the notch and were with the highest climber in a minute. I put in two snow flukes (anchors designed for snow that won’t hold a “picket” or aluminum spike) and tied into their rope. Al started triage. The three climbers on the shelf below heard the rocks and the screams and headed back up. It was just after noon.
Their leader (“Mike”) had taken a blow to the head and although his helmet had saved his life, he was badly stunned. The next guy (“Barry”) had taken a hit to the shoulder and nothing appeared broken. He would suffer for a few days and be fine, but for now he was in no condition to self-arrest (stop himself if he slipped). The lady was still screaming and Al hurried to her. It was impossible to know what damage had been done – so we had no choice but to assume the worst. She had no feeling below the waist and couldn’t control her legs. At the very least she had a serious spinal injury and she was in great pain. But Al’s presence was an immediate relief and he soon had her calmed down enough to talk with her.
Meanwhile, I was anchored awkwardly and had Al on belay. More rocks were coming down and Mike was becoming more lucid, wondering “What happened?” Our first task was obvious: we had to get these folks down to the safety of the shelf. The method was also apparent, Al would have to carry the woman. First, he disconnected from the belay rope and hooked in to the injured party’s rope. He had the other two climbers on their rope carry the injured woman’s gear while I tied our rope to theirs so that I could belay the whole group. Mike was cooperative if not helpful and Barry was going to be fine while roped and on belay. Al anchored his pack (for me to pick up on the way down) and within five minutes we were ready to move.
Carrying a person’s “dead weight” is never easy. At least “Carrie” was small and light. There just isn’t any good way to carry a person with a back injury – even on level ground with a backboard and a stretcher. But we had no choice, we had to move her. If we had had a framed pack, we might have tried to improvise some type of stretcher or if we had been on any other part of the climb, we might had made a sling stretcher and used six people to carry her. Instead, Al used a simple sling, hoisted her as carefully as he could, and gently carried her down to the shelf.
With the added length of our rope, I was able to belay the others all the way down to the shelf. Al picked the safest place along the shelf and had the others prepare a “pad” where he would lay Carrie down. But the five climbers combined didn’t have half the gear that Al and I had carried, so they didn’t have much to work with until I arrived with 70 lbs of gear in two packs. When I arrived, Al was already working to comfort and assure everyone, administer first aid, and take inventory. A quick look told me that we had serious problems and that rescue was going to be required.
Because a two man climbing team is a “weak” team (even with the best of climbers), Al and I usually carried a CB radio (before the days of cell phones). I dug it out of my pack and was pleased to get an immediate reply to my broadcast on the emergency channel. A camper below took our information and contacted the County Sherriff’s office. Within twenty minutes, I was talking to a deputy at Timberline. But before that we were plenty busy.
The “shelf” we were on varied from just wide enough to walk on to a platform six feet wide. On one side, the slope dropped down over 500’ at 45-50˚ to the “Devil’s Kitchen”, the main (steaming) caldera of the volcano. On the other side, it dropped vertically into the shrund, probably no more than 40”. The wide part was also the safest part since falling rocks tended to veer away from it or fall into the shrund. But then, there were ten of us there and it felt crowded – too crowded.
The first task was to make Carrie as safe and comfortable as possible. While not the only injury, her injury was the only one that might be “life threatening,” not because the injury would kill her but because it might prove fatal if we didn’t get her down safely. Mike’s head was a concern although he was improving by the minute (altitude can have strange affects and head injuries are always of greater concern in the mountains). While Al and I worked on Carrie, we also took inventory of who was present and what they had with them. The only good news in that regard was that Barry was Carrie’s husband. Otherwise, we had a bunch of inexperienced and underprepared climbers without medical expertise.
The radio call from the deputy was good news to all. I used my signal mirror to pinpoint our location for him and he told us that help was on the way. He wanted to know our condition, preparedness, and needs and I explained summarily that we had stabilized the victim, were well prepared to deal with the emergency, and had substantial rescue and medical experience. All we needed was a backboard and stretcher and we could bring the victim down to a place where she could be air-evacuated off the mountain (by the 304th Air Rescue Squadron from Portland). The deputy advised us that they would send both with a party of rescuers who would start up the mountain shortly. We established a radio protocol to save my batteries and signed off.
We had carefully smoothed out the snow and laid out a “space blanket” and two ensolite sleeping pads. We put Carrie into my sleeping bag and had her comfortably drinking fluids and chatting. We didn’t give her any pain medication although we had enough to numb a horse. For now, it was better if we knew where and when she was hurting. Moving her hadn’t made her injury worse, but she still didn’t have feeling in her legs. She could move her toes. Our thinking was that her injury wasn’t as bad as we first thought, but since the weather was perfect and help was on the way, there was no reason to take any risks.
Three climbers who had been farther down the Hogsback had climbed back up to us. They were more experienced and somewhat better prepared than the injured party. Rather than keep a group who were of little help around, we sent everyone except Barry and one of the experienced Hogsback climbers down. We especially wanted to get Mike off the mountain. The group roped up with the Hogsback team - the only thing they could leave for us was the rope from the injured party and a little bit of food. Since we had a stove (to melt snow for water) and what seemed like plenty of food, that was not an issue.
As our “extras” headed down, we could see a group heading up from the Lodge. It was sunny, warm, clear, and as calm as you’d ever expect at 10,000’ in the Cascades. The deputy checked in on the radio and we advised him that some of our group were headed down. Through my spotting scope I could literally see him standing next to his car in the parking lot (three miles away and 4,000’ below). He advised us that the rescue team was on the way from the lodge and that the rescue helicopter was due in about 20 minutes. Their plan was to drop off a couple of paramedics (“pararescuers” in the military lingo and “PJs” to us) as high as they could so that they could assist us. I advised him that the victim was stable and comfortable and reminded him that our primary need was a backboard and stretcher - that we had adequate climbing gear and supplies.
Just over an hour after the first radio call, we could hear the chopping sound of the Huey’s big blades as the rescue helicopter worked for altitude. We watched it land in the parking lot at Timberline and had every reason to think that we’d be off the mountain in a couple of hours. The conditions remained perfect and we discussed our plans for getting down the Hogsback. Carrie was doing as well as possible and we were all in good spirits. The “rescue party” was split up with the highest climber already more than half way up the Palmer Glacier. We wondered why they weren’t brought up in the Snow-Cats used to groom the slopes for the year-around skiers on the lower Palmer.
We watched as the helicopter took off and made its winding slow climb towards us. It finally reached the elevation of the Devil’s kitchen and we were disappointed when it circled in and out of the amphitheater. It dropped about a thousand feet lower (to 9,000’), landed on the snow, and dropped off two passengers. Then it quickly dropped back down and landed in the parking lot. I looked down at the two PJs with my spotting scope and saw that neither had a backboard or stretcher. One of them had a substantial pack while the other was without a pack – but had a coiled rope over his shoulder. I figured that we had a failure to communicate and knew that the PJs would have their own radios. So I radioed the Clackamas County Deputy ahead of schedule.
He explained that the helicopter couldn’t land in the caldera due to “wind conditions”. I asked about the backboard and stretcher. He replied that the rescue team had them and that since they wanted to get medical help to us as soon as possible, the two PJs didn’t want to bring them. I bit my tongue and looked at Al knowing we had the same thoughts. We had plenty of rope – why bring another? Were these PJs something special – Al and I both had the same military medical training (“field medic”) as regular PJs. I had informed the Deputy that we had two EMTs in our group and that the victim was stable and ready to transport – except for our lack of a backboard and stretcher. And what were the “wind conditions” they mentioned? There was a slight breeze blowing, but we were sitting there comfortably in short sleeves.
Carrie couldn’t wait any longer – she needed to pee. Since it was now clear that rescue was not imminent, we had to deal with that. In that regard, it was good that her husband was with us since it took both of us to help her. The hardest part was unwrapping her from the rope mesh we had made in case we needed to carry her before the stretcher arrived. Once that task was accomplished, we watched as the first PJ approached. He was clearly struggling with the elevation and seemed poorly equipped – wearing military boots and a flight suit. On the other hand, we was trying real hard to reach us quickly.
His name was Steve and he was a staff sergeant (E-4, Al was an E-3 or “BucK” sergeant). Like he was trained, he “took charge of the situation”. He performed the exact same examination that we had and came to the same conclusions. He asked few questions and decided that what was needed was a backboard and stretcher. I commented wryly that we had made it clear more than two hours ago that was all we really needed.
Steve’s younger buddy arrived with a big military medical pack. He was wearing shorts, light hiking shoes, and a sleeveless shirt. Steve quickly opened the pack and said he was going to start an IV (intravenous drip). Al and I gave each other another knowing glance and I asked “why?” I got “the look” from Steve and he said something about standard protocol. “Not here and not now,” I replied. I got another look followed by “Look, I’m in charge here. Just who are you anyway?” “I’m the person in charge here, sergeant” I offered with a glare of my own. PJs aren’t accustomed to such responses and I had definitely hit this jerk’s “pride” nerve. On the other hand, I had used the word “sergeant” in a way that one might expect from a higher ranking officer. We locked gaze and there was doubt in his eyes.
After a long glaring look, he asked, “why not?” “First of all, there’s no need. We’ve been pumping her full of fluids for a few hours. She’s hydrated and stable.” I looked at Carrie and smiled – “and I can assure you that she’s passing urine in significant quantity without difficulty.” “Our immediate goal is to get her off this ledge and down to a rescue helicopter as soon as possible and there is simply no way we’re going to be able to manage an IV during the move.” Sergeant Steve listened, but didn’t hear. Instead, he looked down to Carrie and asked her bluntly who she wanted to be in charge. Without hesitation she answered: “Rich.”
With that “debate” over, Steve stayed in the sidelines while his counterpart (Eric) seemed to relish the exchange and became more engaged. A glance at him brought up another issue. I looked down the mountain and saw the “rescue team” working slowly upwards. My guess was that they were still two hours away. The sun was getting lower, the air cooler, and the breeze heavier. By the time they arrived, it would be chilly or plainly cold. At that point, there were seven of us on the ledge (Al, Carrie, Barry, Tom - the climber from the Hogsback group, Steve, Eric, and me). Between us we had six pairs of gloves, four pairs from Al and me. Tom had a pair and the PJs had one light pair in their kit. Steve and Eric had no climbing gear except the rope that we didn’t need. They also had little climbing experience.
As much as Eric was friendly and likable, he wasn’t an asset. We had loaned him a jacket, but he was still looking chilled. Soon, we’d have all our warm clothes loaned to others. I figured the biggest issue would be gloves since carrying the stretcher would pretty much require them. I was also thinking that I’d like to send Steve and that useless medical pack down the mountain. But while I was considering all this, the PJ’s radio crackled to life. Steve explained our situation almost verbatim as we had described it earlier and emphasized that we needed a backboard and a stretcher. The helicopter pilot explained that he couldn’t land in the caldera to drop off the stretcher and by the time they got them loaded, they couldn’t land any higher than the recue team already were (with a backboard and stretcher). The pilot also explained that he intended to head back to base and refuel so that he’d have a full tank when needed later.
While that made some sense, I couldn’t figure how he was low on fuel. It was only 50 miles (as the crow flies) from PDX to Timberline. What also didn’t make sense was his unwillingness to simply drop off a stretcher and backboard. It was strikingly disheartening to hear the helicopter take off and watch it fly away. The sun dropped lower and the chill worsened.
I looked down to check the progress of the rescue team. One of them was well ahead of the rest and looked like he’d arrive in well under an hour. But then, he was the only one without a pack. We heated some water and ate some food, trying to keep spirits high. Carrie was doing as well as possible, but she’d been lying in one position too long. She wanted to move or try to sit up, but we wouldn’t allow it. We started planning for the evacuation and down-climb of the Hogsback.
The Hogsback is far from a “technical” climb and many climbers don’t even rope up for it. When there are plenty of climbers, a trail forms on its upper edge and under good snow conditions, it’s little more than a steep uphill walk. On hot summer days, the afternoon snow gets sloppy and slippery, but then as the sun settles, the snow freezes hard again. The re-frozen slush forms an icy sheet on top of the slush beneath making for treacherous footing. You can imagine the various stages this goes through:
o When the icy sheet is thin, you simply step through it and deal with the slush.
o As it thickens, you have to kick through it.
o Then it becomes hard to kick through it and you’d rather walk on top of it, but then you occasionally break through.
o Then it becomes a hard sheet of “water ice”.
What’s not obvious is that you have to wear crampons to deal with the ice, but they create problems in the slushy snow (which balls up in them). Since it was now apparent that we’d be stuck on the ledge for at least a couple of more hours, conditions would be changing rapidly and crampons would be necessary. There were seven of us and five pairs of crampons (including the pair worn by Carrie that were too small for anyone else). If everyone had come prepared to spend a night on the mountain, we’d probably have slept up there and headed down in the morning. As it was, we needed to reduce our numbers again.
That discussion didn’t go well since it was apparent that the “excess” people were the two PJs. We discussed the possibility of exchanging gear and I would have preferred to keep the strong and able Eric to help with the stretcher. There was also hope that the rescue team would have extra clothing, but they certainly wouldn’t have extra boots and crampons. After lengthy discussion, it was clear that Steve would not suffer the embarrassment of being sent down and that he would not send his medical kit down with Eric. Tom agreed to lend his crampons and ice axe to Steve and to go down with Eric.
Meanwhile, the first “rescuer” from the lodge was approaching and we were confronted by another surprise. He was dressed in shorts and had a small day pack. Instead of being a “rescuer”, he was a young climber who thought he’d come up and help out. Although friendly and bringing a positive attitude, we quickly resolved that his best role was to make the group heading back down stronger. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any gloves or a headlamp to leave for us.
We heard the helicopter from far away as it made plenty of noise climbing to altitude. Steve’s radio crackled to life again and we heard that the pilot would test flight conditions in the caldera again. Standing there on the ledge there was little hope that flying conditions would seem better since the slight breeze was now a steady one. But we watched hopefully as the helicopter banked its turn into the caldera and then swept outbound. If it was a conditions test, it was a quick one. The pilot then dropped down to the next possible pick-up point at about 9,400’ and made a slow fly-by before dropping quickly back down to Timberline. A pick-up at 9,400’ MIGHT be alright.
We went ahead and set up the belay anchors we’d need when it came time to lower the stretcher carriers and our three extras headed down. The sun dropped behind Illumination Rock and the chill became the cold. It’s always amazing to witness how much difference a little sunshine makes in the mountains. As the three man rescue team headed up the Hogsback, we were relieved to see a stretcher along with three well-prepared climbers. I felt sorry for them because they were also heavily laden with ropes and I knew their effort in carrying them had been wasted. I hoped that they had headlamps (to supplement Al’s and mine) since it was now apparent that it would be dark before we headed down.
With the arrival of people that Steve knew, he decided it was time for him to take charge. I was too tired to care and Al and I were more concerned about getting down safely. So while Steve and one of the rescuers prepped Carrie in the stretcher, Al and I organized the others for the down-climb. By the time we were ready, it was dark.
We had six people to carry the stretcher and one for the belay. Everyone needed to be tied in to the stretcher and the stretcher was tied to the belay rope. I was tied to four anchors at the back of my harness with the belay rope running through my “8” ring. Footing was predictably bad and since the stretcher forced the carriers on each side to walk off the “trail” and on the down-slope, it was tough going. I tried to keep slight and steady tension on the belay rope, but found that the group moved erratically. I’m sure that was partly due to the fact that there were only four headlamps amongst us.
I had previously belayed four people at a time in anchor tests and rescue practices. The belay worked great but I wasn’t prepared for the way the load pulled. The first time the group slipped, they pulled me from my stance (not a surprise) and I braked them successfully trusting the anchors to hold me in place. The anchors were well placed and had frozen solidly, so I didn’t give them a second thought. What was a surprise was the tightness of my harness as it pinched with the weight. The 45 minute descent of the Hogsback was pure misery for all of us.
When the group reached the end of the second rope they were well below the dangerous part of the ridge and by arrangement, they simply disconnected from the belay and continued. I dug out the anchors by starlight and carefully descended the ridge – appreciating first hand why it had been difficult for them. When I reached the bottom of the ropes, I had to coil and carry them. So, by the time I caught the group, they were already at the 9,400’ platform. Steve was on the radio with the pilot and they were getting ready to take off. They were going to rely upon flares to make their landing and they wanted four of us to mark out the landing zone. No problem – Steve had four flares with him.
The helicopter approached cautiously, got to within ten feet of the ground and then swooped away. The pilot radioed back and said it was too gusty for a safe landing. He returned to Timberline and landed. We loaded up and started walking down. The only good news was that the Lodge operator was going to send out two Snow-Cats to meet us. We seemed to make better time going down than they made coming up, but at least we could see their progress and were confident the weather wouldn’t keep them from “landing”. We met at 8,000’ and loaded Carrie, Steve and Barry into one Snow-Cat (which are not spacious). Two guys had come up in the other and the three rescuers jumped into it. We might have packed Al or me inside, but instead we told them to go down without us – we’d walk.
It took us less than an hour to reach the lodge and we were both tired and a bit irate. Two long days of climbing, a maddening rescue, and the “final straw” of being forced to watch others ride out left us sour. Besides, it was after midnight and we still had to drive to Spokane so Al wouldn’t be AWOL at duty call in the morning. But we needed to recover our equipment, so we headed into the Lodge. We were surprised by the party that was going on – and even more surprised that it was mostly guys from the 304th Air Rescue Squadron who were partying. Who were all these people and where did they come from?
First of all, I should tell you that a doctor at the Lodge had declared Carrie’s injuries to be non-life-threatening so the 304th couldn’t air lift her out. She and Barry had been taken to Portland in an ambulance where she would fully recover from a serious back injury.
During the day, a sizeable contingent (a dozen +) from the 304th had come up to the Lodge to join the pilots and crew of the helicopter along with the PJs. That group included their commander, a Lt. Colonel. They were gleefully celebrating their “successful rescue” (as if pararescue people need a reason to party). We were treated to free drinks which I declined since I/we intended to drive home. The Colonel wondered why we would drive to Spokane so late and we finally revealed that Al was in the Air Force, stationed at Fairchild AFB, and had to be back in the morning. That led to the revelation that we were both survival instructors (although I was technically an ex-survival instructor - but once a “921” always a “921”).
The “friendly” bantering began and to his credit, the Colonel said he would make a call in the morning and explain Al’s situation so we didn’t have to drive back until morning. To his credit, the Lodge manager then offered us a room for the night – gratis. And then, to the 304th’s credit, there were plenty of free drinks. Sometime during the night we managed to recover our gear and get a little sleep. I called my wife and explained what had happened, but she already knew since we were late making our “check-in” phone call and she had previously called the Ranger’s office.
In the weeks that followed, we had plenty of opportunity to discuss the rescue. I wrote a long letter (co-signed by Al) that described the rescue pretty much as above which the Oregonian printed in whole. Needless to say, the folks at the 304th were quite unhappy about it. The commander of the 304th contacted Al’s commander and demanded a retraction. Al said the story was accurate as told and I wrote a letter also stating such. Carrie also talked with Al’s commander and that cinched it. No apology or retraction would be offered. The “friendly” bantering became far less friendly for YEARS to follow.
The Oregonian letter and my letter responding to the 304th made their way to “higher-ups” in the Air Force and something quite unexpected happened: the President of the United States and the Secretary of the United States Air Force awarded Sgt. Alan W. Ewert the Airman’s Medal – the highest non-wartime medal of the Air Force given only to those who risk their lives in an effort to save the lives of another.
 Dr. Alan W. Ewert holds the Patricia and Joel Meier Endowed Chair of Outdoor Leadership at Indiana University and is an international leader of outdoor recreation studies and education.
 I’m going to use fictitious names for everyone except Al and me.
 Under the Air Force’s job categorization system or Air Force specialty code (AFSC), survival instructors and pararescuers are closely related. PJs attend the Fairchild survival course and there is a friendly rivalry between the groups.
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