Airmen rescue injured mountain climber

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Russ Jackson
Two Airmen from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord risked their lives to rescue an injured climber from Mount Rainier May 28.

Second Lt. Ryan McQuillan, 22nd STS officer in charge weapons and tactics, and Master Sgt. Kim Brewer, 22nd STS NCO in charge of weapons and tactics, are the only two service members at Lewis-McChord who had the proper skills to answer the call.

At 8 a.m. that day, the 22nd STS was contacted by the 214th General Support Aviation Battalion at Fort Lewis about an injured mountain climber who was in need of an evacuation that would require her to be hoisted up to a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter.

McQuillan trained side-by-side with pararescuemen in Afghanistan in 2005 on a high altitude rescue team working hoist and litter operations from heights up to 15,000 feet.

Brewer is an expert mountain climber who has summited Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams numerous times each.

Together, they were the right combination for such a specific rescue attempt.

The CH-47 flew the men to Disappointment Cleaver on Mount Rainier where the injured climber and her group were waiting. The steep grade of the mountain made it too dangerous for the Airmen to hoist down at that point, so they were flown 500 feet higher up the mountain where they were able to start the evacutaion.

"Brewer went down the hoist first and secured himself to the mountain with his ice axe," McQuillan said. "Since the angle was so steep he had to pound in a picket and anchor in before releasing from the hoist.

"When I hit the ground, we roped up, came up with a quick plan and then broke down our anchors. It was a quick 500 foot down climb to say the least."

Once they reached the patient, McQuillan checked her vitals while Brewer began building anchors for them to tie into before breaking from their ropes. The patient was alert enough for McQuillan to assist her onto the hoist, allowing her to ascend to the helicopter alone.

As soon as they hoisted the patient off the mountain, small bands of clouds began passing through their location giving them clear visibility, then no visibility, repeatedly.

Brewer spoke to the helicopter pilots about their hoist extraction, planning to send up one at a time. Since the weather was rapidly getting worse, the pilot wanted them to climb 500 feet back up the mountain.

McQuillan and Brewer squashed that idea immediately.

"We asked the pilot if he was 100 percent sure he could hoist both of us off the mountain before the weather got too bad," said McQuillan. "He wasn't and since there was no way we were going to leave only one guy up there we made the call to climb down together with the hope to extract at Camp Muir."

Once the helicopter departed the mountain, the Airmen linked up with the Mount Rainier guide who had been with the patient. The three climbers made their way past Disappointment Cleaver and eventually to Camp Muir. There, they were able to rest, eat and get some water, which they would need, as the weather was still too bad for the helicopter to evacuate them from the mountain.

That only left one option for McQuillan and Brewer.

They had climbed the rest of the way down Mount Rainier to the Paradise visitor center, alone, in high winds, snow, freezing rain and visibility of less than 20 feet.

"Since we were on our own, we took our time going down and did one long halt to check the map and global positioning system," McQuillan said.

After the strenuous trek in the extreme conditions and about six hours after their initial drop in, the Airmen arrived safely at the Paradise visitor center.

They were met by a National Park Service officer who drove the men to Kautz Heli-base where they were finally able to link up with the helicopter and fly back to Lewis-McChord.

The Airmen were relieved to be safely off the mountain but they were happier to be able to help someone in need of aid.

"It was a good feeling to be able to help out a fellow climber who had gotten injured on the mountain," Brewer said.

This mountain rescue proved to be another example of the range of skills members from the 22nd STS possess.

"It's definitely a good feeling to be part of something like this," said McQuillan. "We established a good relationship with the national park service, we're creating a good capability within our squadron, and we're helping out the local community as well."

Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Guilmain, 22nd STS superintendent, echoed McQuillan's words. "I'm proud of our team's performance during this joint rescue operation and I'm excited that our unique capabilities were useful in helping this distressed climber."