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Alaska Science Forum: Scientists endure nights on mountaintop perch

Posted: October 18, 2013 - 12:00am
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Mount Mageik, a 7,103-foot volcano in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.   Photo courtesy of Taryn Lopez
Photo courtesy of Taryn Lopez
Mount Mageik, a 7,103-foot volcano in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.

Leaning against her Thermarest pad in a helicopter coated with ice, Taryn Lopez imagined herself as the little girl rocking to sleep in her parent’s boat. Just before she drifted off on that early September night, the volcano researcher wondered if the climbing ropes would hold the Jet Ranger to the wind-pounded volcano on the spine of the Alaska Peninsula.

“We weren’t sure if we’d wake up the next morning having moved a couple feet,” she said.

In the back seat of the stranded helicopter, John Paskievitch was confident in his improvised anchors, but had a harder time falling asleep. He couldn’t help thinking of the flying-rock windstorms he had experienced in 25 years of fieldwork in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. And how most of that extreme weather occurred in places not nearly as exposed as this.

Sleep also eluded pilot Sam Egli of King Salmon as he shifted in his seat at the unfamiliar sensation of being wrapped in a sleeping bag. Egli made the call to stay on top of Mount Mageik when ice formed on the blades of his helicopter during what was meant to be a short trip.

Overnighting near a steaming volcanic crater in a vessel weighing less than a compact car was not what any of the trio wanted, but it was a circumstance each had thought about before it occurred. Their foresight, experience and calm allowed them to survive 48 hours on top of Mount Mageik. Theirs is a story of a rare circumstance but one that is always possible when scientists perform fieldwork in remote spots.

The adventure started in a routine fashion. Lopez, who had flown down from Fairbanks, and Paskievitch, who lives near Anchorage, met at the airport in King Salmon. There, Egli operates Egli Air Haul with his family. Lopez, a postdoctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, is studying the relationship of volcanic gases to seismicity on Mounts Mageik and Martin and Trident Volcano. Paskievitch installs and fixes scientific equipment all over the Alaska Peninsula.

The next afternoon, with the weather clearing, Egli flew them into the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. First on Paskievitch’s list was to fix a radio repeater. He made the repair quickly and Egli flew them deep into the valley, where he landed near the Baked Mountain huts, built by researchers a few decades ago and the only shelter for miles. To the south, they could see the blue-white summit of 7,103-foot Mount Mageik. Their next stop was to retrieve Lopez’s equipment from near the steaming crater on top.

At the huts, the scientists dropped off excess gear, such as a computer and test equipment Paskievitch used at the repeater site. Lopez pulled on heavy long johns, quick-drying field pants, rain pants, wool socks, two wool shirts, a fleece sweater and a rainshell. Paskievitch stepped into insulated coveralls and pulled on his climbing boots.

They boarded the helicopter with the summit of Mount Mageik visible seven miles away. Egli floated them up, and they were soon on the rim of the summit crater with a volcanic lake on one side and crevassed glacier on the other.

“We landed in excellent conditions,” Paskievitch, who works at the USGS Volcano Science Center, said over the phone from Anchorage a few weeks after his adventure. “We go into places a lot where weather is an obvious factor you have to consider and you’re on high guard. This wasn’t one of those times. Nothing was threatening.”

While Egli sat at the controls of the helicopter, Lopez and Paskievitch disassembled her monitoring equipment at the site, which included an ice-caked antenna attached to an aluminum pole. This was the last trip of the season — they would remove the instruments that had provided Lopez data on what types and amounts of gases the volcano emitted.

“We had worked for 28 minutes when Sam called out to us,” Paskievitch said. “He said ice was forming on the helicopter blades and it was time to go.”

Their job unfinished, the scientists gathered up loose gear and headed back to the helicopter. As they buckled in, Egli started rotating the blades.

“At that point, the weather did creep in,” Paskievitch said. “(Sam) sat there at full throttle waiting for an opening in the weather. While he was waiting there, we watched his torque meter go from 27 to 35 to 40 percent without him doing anything.”

The torque meter measures the strain on the rotor shaft. The increasing numbers showed that more ice was forming on the blades. Egli shut down the engine. He asked Paskievitch to clear the ice.

Paskievitch stepped out, leaned into the wind, and tapped the leading edges of each blade with the synthetic handle of a pick. Lopez got out and held the blades down while Paskievitch zipped his climbing rope over them to remove more ice.

After the 15-minute task was complete, Paskievitch and Lopez slipped back into the helicopter. Egli again cranked the engine to life. As the three waited for a hole in the clouds, they again noticed the numbers climbing on the torque meter. Egli shut down the engine. Paskievitch left the helicopter once more to manually de-ice the blades.

“After I cleared one off and was working on the other, I looked over and saw the clean one was picking up ice again,” he said. “It was obvious it was a futile effort.”

That was the moment all three realized they were not leaving the volcano any time soon. With the wind gusting at 70 mph, they made a mental switch. The helicopter was no longer transportation; it was a shelter that was far better than their second option, a blue plastic tarp.

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 three 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 eight 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 petite 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 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.

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