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Zac Hoyt accomplished the first solo winter ascent of Devils Thumb Mountain on the Alaska, British Columbia border in March 2006. But he had less success on the way down. At 5,000 feet, Hoyt fell into a crevasse. Despite an injured shoulder, he climbed out and called for help. But when you're on the side of a mountain, who's going to come get you?
A U.S. Coast Guard HH-60J Jayhawk soon responded, led by Lt. Cmdr. William Timmons, with copilot Lt. Walter Horne at the controls. Flight mechanic Karl Schickle and rescue swimmer John Houlberg stood ready in the back, along with a three-man mountain rescue team.
Visibility near the mountain was down to a mile. Steady 45-knot winds and 60-knot gusts kicked up snow and an icy fog on the surface - making it that much harder to find Hoyt.
But then visibility cleared just enough to spot Hoyt's yellow tent. The crew marked its location on the navigation computer, which may have saved Hoyt’s life because pilots had a hard time keeping the heavily loaded helicopter in a stable hover for a high-altitude hoist. Still, darkness and deteriorating weather increasingly threatened to end the rescue efforts for the night.
But Timmons wanted one more try.
As 20-below zero air raced through the open cabin door, the crew used Hoyt’s tent and two crevasses as their only ground references. They descended to 100 feet off the glacier.
Schickle, with numb hands and a frosted visor, operated the winch for the rescue basket. Hoyt’s frost-bitten fingers wouldn’t let him don his boots, so he ran in stocking feet to the basket and climbed inside.
The helicopter drifted as it pulled away, and the basket struck an ice pinnacle, nearly ejecting Hoyt. Some avionics on the copilot’s side had frozen and no longer worked. The intercom also had failed, forcing the crew to shout their instructions. Amidst heavy down drafts, both Timmons and Horne labored to control the chopper.
Despite it all, they lifted the climber safely away. But challenges mounted; blowing snow at the hospital led to two wave-offs. Finally landed, the helo completed its harrowing mission.
AVIATION WEEK presented the Breitling Award for Aviation Heroism to this crew in March for their life-saving rescue. Sure, it's an industry award named after a corporate sponsor, but if it didn't already exist, it needed to be created for just this crew. Coast Guard personnel have a well-deserved reputation for getting the job done with what they've got. Semper paratus.
-- David Hughes, Michael Bruno