Friday, October 18, 2013

Helicopter heroics

This is the conclusion of my previous post.  If you missed it and you care to read them in order scroll to the the bottom of this post and start there.

Inside our cubby, the temperature was probably close to 40 degrees, I only can guess that because our slushy water was slowly getting less slushy.  Forty seems warm considering the night before it was in the teens, but there was no way to avoid touching the cold rock and we were still shivering more than we weren't.  It was still cold enough that when Roman peed into a empty bottle he chose to snuggle with it until it lost its heat.  I'd like to say I thought it was gross but I was jealously wishing I could pee as well. 

We got in the cubby at 1:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday.  It was a long uncomfortable night of wondering how many days we might need to stay in there and how long we could make our food and water last.  We passed the time by trying to get someone on the radio.  We could hear other people clearly talking back and forth but for some reason they could not hear us.  Hoping for the smallest cell signal we prepared a text to our wives that had our GPS coordinates and said that we were going to need helicopter rescue.  At 5:00 AM on Thursday, after 16 hours in our claustrophobic cubby, Roman turned his cell phone on to check the time and saw he had a signal.  He immediately sent our text.  Within minutes we got a text back.  It said that a search and rescue team had already been assembled and that a helicopter was available weather permitting.  We started to celebrate.  Roman's signal turned in to 2 bars so he called Michelle.  Michelle had to pinch herself to make sure she was not dreaming.  Like most wives would, she had been fearing the worst.  

Roman and I's anticipation of the sun to rise now was like that of kids on Christmas morning, except our Santa was going to be flying a CHP helicopter.  We talked about happy things like helicopter rescues, Churros and Disneyland, but mostly helicopter rescues.  We wondered how exactly it would go down.  Would a search and rescue guy be lowered to us?  Would they simply lower us a rope and harness?  Would they lower us a stretcher of some sort to strap into?  It seemed we were only hours from being reunited with our families and we couldn't think of anything sweeter. 

Around 7:00 the sun started to shine onto our little doorway.

I immediately broke out a window to see a glorious sunrise.  It looked like perfect conditions for a helicopter rescue.  Our rope still hung outside from the last rappel the day before.  It was frozen.

This is a short video I took upon realizing our good fortune.

At around 8:00 the helicopter started buzzing around.  I was hanging out the window of our cubby waving Roman's red backpack.  I was naive enough to think he may have seen me on his first pass over us.  I had no idea how hard it must be for them to spot us on the huge mountain face, but after watching him buzz past us 10 or 20 times I started to realize.  Luckily we had a signal again and I called the search and rescue team.  They put me through to the helicopter copilot and I started giving directions as to where we were. 

It seemed like it took longer than it should have but I eventually guided them to just about 100 yards in front of me exactly at eye level.  I was furiously waving the red backpack.  They still could not see me.  

"I'm looking straight at you!  I am waving a red backpack!"

The pilot could sense my frustration.  Finally when they were only about 50 yards in front of us, the pilot spotted me.  I realized that if we didn't have cell phone service it might have been days before they actually spotted us. 

Once the helicopter did find us the pilot immediately told us we were in the worst possible spot for a rescue.  He told us there was no way he could get close enough to rescue us from our current location.  

In this video the pilot is surveying the cliffside for a location in which he could rescue us from.

The pilot found an finger of rock that stuck out from the cliffside far enough he could get the helicopter in for a rescue.  It was only enough room that he would barely be able to put one skid down but it was the only real option to get us off the mountain.  The spot was about 3 pitches away from us.  He flew the helicopter to it and asked if we could get to it.  My immediate response was no.  Two days ago, when the cliffside was a rock face it would have been no problem, but now the face of the mountain was 70% snow.  We didn't have any gear to protect ourselves on snow and I didn't really have much experience on it.  I was definitely scared at the thought of going out on the exposed snow.

Search and Rescue had a team ready that had all the proper gear for protecting the snowy pitches.  The pilot said he would come back, drop them off at the pick up spot, they would then come to us and then guide us back to the pick up spot.  He figured the whole process could take up to 8 hours.  Which didn't seem that bad until he explained to me that the morning was the best time for a rescue, often in the afternoon the wind picks up and they can't do the technical flying that would be required to pick us up.  Basically there was a decent chance we would be spending another night in our cubby this time with two more guys.  I knew there wasn't room for anyone else in the cubby and I really didn't want to be there another day.  I talked it over with Roman and called back the pilot.  I told him not to bring up the Search and Rescue team we were going to attempt to get there ourselves.

I have been asked by everybody, "Did you have enough food and water?"  The honest answer is we took enough food for one full day of climbing and after being up there for 3 days we still had 3/4 of it left.  The stress was so great that I never once thought "I'm hungry, I'm going to eat something." instead a few times I thought "I should try to eat something" and was never able to actually stomach much.  

The water was similar.  We took enough to go up and down the technical sections only, but after 3 days still had about half left.  The reason for that was it was either frozen or slushy and we were so cold already that neither of us could bare the thought of drinking ice cold slush and making our body temps that much lower.  

This combination of not eating or drinking had to be taking a toll on our bodies ability to cope with what was now to be required of us for the rescue.  In the cubby I didn't care about our bodies weakening states because once we got in there, I was planning on staying in there until rescue came.  I had shut it down mentally and physically.  Now we had to get it going again for one last push.

We started to organize our gear.  Our rope was frozen and I was wondering if we were going to be able to pull it down or not.   I remember secretly wishing that we would not be able to get the rope down and I could call back the pilot and tell him he needed to bring up the rescue team.  The rope was stubborn but we worked it down.

The first pitch was a horizontal traverse along the shear face.  I set it up as a rappel and managed to get in only two pieces of protection in the hundred feet.  I was about half way through the pitch when Roman yelled to me, "I can't find my belay device."

"Are you kidding?"

"No I can't find it."

"I'm not coming back there.  You better find it!"

Roman is notorious for misplacing things, however this was not the time to lose your most valuable piece of gear, but he had lost it nonetheless.  

I finished the pitch and fixed the other end of the rope so Roman could traverse across the fixed line with just his personal anchor.

The next pitch was a straight forward rappel.  Or at least it would have been straight forward if we had two belay devices.  I have read a million different ways to rappel without a belay device but never actually done any of them.  Of course they had all run together and I was having trouble coming up with just one legitimate way.  Roman rigged up some kind of triple rope wrap of his locking biner and it was going to have to do.  During the rappel Roman knocked his radio loose and it fell.   I was expecting to hear it hit against the wall a few times and then here it explode when it hit the bottom, but the wall we were on was so shear and so tall that I heard it hit the wall one time and then nothing, I waited for an explosion but nothing.   

Here I am on the rappel.  Notice the helicopter in the top of this picture.  Like myself, Search and Rescue wasn't convinced I had what it took to do the pitches in the snow, so the helicopter stayed constantly near us in case something went wrong.  You would think that would have given us a sense of reassurance, but really it made the situation feel like a Hollywood production and definitely added a level of stress. 

The second rappel deposited us about 80 feet below the pick up spot.  The finish line of our epic was finally in sight.  Eighty feet of what was easy climbing before the snow was now going to be a formidable test.  

Roman was light headed and having dizzy spells.  My hands had been painfully cold and now didn't have much feeling left in them.  I was far from 100 percent, but the best thing about climbing is the challenge it presents.  If it were easy there would be no reason to do it.  Most climbers favorite climbs are the ones that push them closest to their limit and Roman and I were getting very close.   

Starting the last pitch the first move just to get off the ground was very steep.  As I did it I wondered if I still had enough in me to get up it.  The pitch had some good old fashion climbing stress, very different from the "lost on a mountain in a snow storm stress" we had dealt with the day before. 

Even in the stress of the last pitch, the beauty around us was undeniable.  The fresh white snow, the crystal blue sky, the gorgeous alpine peaks, then throw in the drama of a helicopter circling over head and you have probably the most memorable pitch of climbing I have ever done.  I am embarrassed to say I loved the last pitch.

Finally we arrived at the rendezvous point.  It felt like I had just finished an ironman.  It wasn't quite over we still had the unknown of jumping into a mostly moving helicopter.

The pick up was everything we feared it might be.  Roman said it was the scariest part of the whole ordeal.  We crawled out 3/4 of the way to the end and hoped that was as far as we needed to go.  The pilot made a pass and signaled to us that we needed to go all the way to where the arrow is pointing.  He told us to lay flat and hold on as there would be gusts of 120MPH that could blow us right off the snowy rock to a certain death.  We laid there in the snow for about 20 minutes waiting for the pilot to burn off fuel and then we heard his siren and knew it was go time.  We tighten down our grip on the rock.  To add a little more Hollywood flare the pilot came up from the below us.  It felt like he magically appeared out of thin air and our environment turned instantly violent.  He went up about twenty feet above our heads and then lowered back down ever so slowly.  The wind was too fierce to watch what was happening and we could only peek every couple of seconds.  Finally he put his skid down just barely onto the rock.  The door already open, the copilot yelled for us to go for it.  I jumped in and scooted across to make room for Roman.  I looked back just to see Roman land safely in next to me.  We were safely inside.  During our 3 days I had wanted to break down crying at least 3 or 4 times but had managed to kept it together.  Neither me or Roman could refrain any longer and both of us let our tears of gratitude flow freely.

After getting checked out for frostbite by the paramedics we were released to go and take a picture with our rescuers.  We will be forever indebted to them both for their great skill and their willingness to risk their own lives to save ours.

We also got to meet and thank our would be rescuers, the Search and Rescue Team.  Who despite being simply volunteers were also willing to risk their own lives to save ours if they had been asked.

Needless to say there were more than a couple of heroes there that day.

Thank you California Highway Patrol and Search and Rescue!  And a special thanks to the taxpayers of California who make helicopter rescues free for boneheads like myself.  I promise not to need another one. 


Mindy said...

I didn't realize you had to jump in to the helicopter! So scary. I am so glad you guys are okay.

Jess Mac said...

Dang. My palms are sweating and I thought I was going to throw up and I started crying when you guys jumped into the helicopter too...and I'm only reading it!!! SO glad you morons are safe. Your wife is pretty amazing too. When I talked to her the night before she was incredibly calm and cool for how sacred I'm sure she was.

Anonymous said...

So thankful you got out OK. I'm dizzy just looking at the pictures. Did you make the news?

Grandma Cher said...

This definitely was the scariest part! I didn't realize you had to jump into the helicopter either. Can't believe what you had to go through. And please don't push your limits ever again! It is pretty comical Roman lost his belay device... so similar to keys I guess! Just so thankful you could make the rescue work. My prayers were answered. I am grateful! You're still grounded though!

Darrell said...

"Wow!" seems woefully inadequate. We are so glad you are safely back home. What a story. I'm pretty sure I would have lost it and just given up. What to go!

Derrick said...