ANCHORAGE — The pre-solstice hike up Flattop on Saturday was supposed to be something like a “fundatory” event for six Army soldiers and civilian staff — that’s a team-building exercise in which participation is mandatory and so is the fun.
It turned into a team builder, all right, though the exercise was strictly off-duty and voluntary and the fun part disappeared before the hike was over.
The ascent was fun. Meeting a family on top with a young kid and a dog was fun — one member of the family took group pictures for the Army bunch. Seeing Anchorage spread out before them was fun.
But the descent was nearly deadly when two of the soldiers started down to the east of the main trail and attempted to traverse a chute of snow and scree to recover the way.
The first soldier, Sgt. Daniel Meighen from Green Bay, Wis., made it, but the second, Staff Sgt. Sebastian Rutkowski from Farmington, Conn., lost control.
Perhaps some loose rock gave way, or maybe he slipped on snow. He barely remembers what happened, but he has a lumpy face, cracked skull, cuts and deep, dark bruises all over his body as evidence of his bouncing, rag-doll tumble down the gully. Incredibly, he broke no bones and didn’t appear to suffer any loss of communication skills.
And the others?
They came together on the steep slope where Rutkowski landed, putting to quick use their military training long before other rescuers arrived. They pulled a blanket, extra clothes, lights and other emergency gear from the weighty pack their leader carried. They put pressure on Rutkowski’s head gashes, slowing the bleeding even as they themselves were covered in his blood, as they might do in combat. They restored him to consciousness by a hard rub to his sternum, just as they’d been taught.
An Alaska Air National Guard helicopter that flew toward the scene contained at least some crew who were recently back from Afghanistan. The soldiers on the mountain used GPS devices to guide the pilot to their coordinates, first in military grid units, then in civilian latitude and longitude that the guardsmen expected.
Rutkowski, Meighen and one of the other hikers, Sgt. Kenneth Porche of Bakersfield, Calif. — all paratrooper veterans of deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan or both — talked about the near-disastrous events over a late dinner Monday night. The leader of the hike and the highest-ranking soldier among them, Maj. Heather Carlisle of Culbertson, Mont., spoke by phone Tuesday. All are assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where they work at U.S. Army Alaska headquarters. The two other hikers were civilians employed at the base.
In the interviews, all the soldiers disputed a characterization by a state trooper spokeswoman that Meighen and Rutkowski deliberately set out to slide down the snow chute. And they said their GPS units showed that Rutkowski’s vertical fall was about 300 feet, not the 1,000 feet cited by the air guard.
But they also agreed with the officials that Flattop, the state’s most climbed mountain, can be deceptively dangerous.
The idea for the climb came from Carlisle, who is about to transfer to Hawaii. Though Rutkowski, 30, has been stationed in Anchorage since 2005 and now owns a house here, he’d never taken a pleasure hike in Alaska. Meighen, 22, had never been to Flattop, though he’s been to Afghanistan. Of the enlisted men, only Porche, 29, had been up there.
“The intention for her was to get us out of the barracks, for soldiers like me in particular,” Rutkowski said.
On the Saturday evening climb up, the soldiers teased Carlisle about her pack, stuffed with a strobe light, green chemical lights, a space blanket, extra clothes and gloves, cookies, ice and a GPS.
“It’s the stuff that normally soldiers will scoff at — they’ll say we don’t need that crap,” Rutkowski said. “We wouldn’t know it until later on but she had every single thing that I needed to make this turn out the right way.”
The climb up was relaxing, he said. Seeing the family with their dog at the summit just made the hike seem that much more nonchalant. But Alaska has a way of surprising people.
Shortly before 11, they turned to go down. Rutkowski and Meighen started their descent together.
“As you go up you can see which trails are the most well traveled but heading down it’s hard to tell which way is the easiest way,” Rutkowski said. “He and I were headed off too far to the right.”
They realized the main way down was far to their left. To get there without going back up, they had to cross a gully of snow and rock.
Carlisle watched from afar as Meighen crossed. She saw him slip a bit, she said.
“At first it looked harmless — he stopped at the end of the snow patch,” she said.
“He slid but he was intact,” Rutkowski said. “I thought I’d be safe as well. When I started traversing this thing, the scree started getting loose under my feet. I don’t remember anything after that.”
Down he went.
“He was flying,” Meighen said. “He was going too fast to stop at all. All I could do was try to grab but he went right through my fingers.”
Porche was watching too. When Rutkowski passed the end of the snow, his body angled sideways, he said.
Meighen scrambled down the slope after him, somehow managing to keep his feet.
“Every 10 feet or so, there were more pools of blood and you can tell that’s where he hit and caught more air for the next 10 feet,” Meighen said. “He was just bouncing down there.”
It was still steep where Rutkowski came to a rest. He was lucky. Had he kept going, Meighen said, he would have gone over an even steeper drop-off.
“He was like a pretzel. He was unconscious. I slapped him a few times pretty hard, it did nothing, then I gave him a good sternum rub with my knuckles,” Meighen said.
The rub brought some life back but not much at first: “He wasn’t able to talk, his eyes were rolling everywhere, his head was like a bobble head. All he could do was like grunts and moans.”
Carlisle and Porche got there a short time later and began working on Rutkowski. Meighen called for help at 9-1-1.
As Rutkowski became more conscious, he was thinking of the mess he was in.
“A soldier never wants to be that guy that falls, the guy that needs to be rescued,” he said. “I’m not one to ask for help at all. But I have to tell you that I was really glad when these guys were there.”
A trooper and a park ranger showed up, and a trooper helicopter flew over but couldn’t land on the steep slope. The soldiers thought they’d all fall if they tried to carry Rutkowski, and the troopers thought he could be paralyzed if he was moved roughly with a neck injury. So they called for the air guard, which can lift a victim strapped to a flat litter into a helicopter.
The wait, though, was daunting. Porche said it was nothing like being in combat.
“Over there, one of your buddies gets hurt, you got 15-, 10-minute response time on a chopper,” he said.
But that’s where helicopters are on standby, sometimes already in the air in anticipation of a fight. It took more than two hours before a crew was assembled and hovering over Rutkowski.
“My butt just hurt so much that I was like, forget this, I’ll walk off this hill,” he said. “Three hours on a mountain, in the rain, after a fall like that, is not a small thing.”
In the aftermath of his rescue, Rutkowski said he’s come to appreciate the Army even more than before. None of the soldiers on the hike were friends who hung out together after work, yet they all came together to save a life, he said.
“It’s not very often that you’d be surrounded by people that will take that good care of you,” he said. “If you took a coworker from a corporate office somewhere, and you didn’t know that guy, good luck getting that kind of response from him.”
Carlisle said that was one message she wanted to send. Another was to not underestimate the perils in Anchorage’s backyard.
“It’s still a mountain — there’s some element of risk,” she said. “We proved that.”