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Fairbanks geologists recall mountain rescue

Posted: August 27, 2012 - 12:35am
This Aug. 18, 2012 photo provided by Kate Bull via the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner shows the tarp Bull used for shelter while stuck on a mountain in Whittier, Alaska. Bull was one of two Fairbanks geologists who were rescued Monday after being forced to bivouac for two nights in the mountains south of Anchorage near Whittier, where they were working when a violent storm suddenly moved in and prevented a helicopter from retrieving them. (AP Photo/The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Kate Bull  Kate Bull
Kate Bull
This Aug. 18, 2012 photo provided by Kate Bull via the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner shows the tarp Bull used for shelter while stuck on a mountain in Whittier, Alaska. Bull was one of two Fairbanks geologists who were rescued Monday after being forced to bivouac for two nights in the mountains south of Anchorage near Whittier, where they were working when a violent storm suddenly moved in and prevented a helicopter from retrieving them. (AP Photo/The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Kate Bull

FAIRBANKS — In 31 years working as a geologist in Alaska, Kate Bull had never been forced to spend the night out in the field while on the job until Saturday.

She’s not eager to do it again.

Bull was one of two Fairbanks geologists who were rescued Monday after being forced to bivouac for two nights in the mountains south of Anchorage near Whittier, where they were working when a violent storm suddenly moved in and prevented a helicopter from retrieving them.

Bull, 52, and Bob Gillis, 48, both of whom work for the Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys in Fairbanks, were cold and wet but otherwise uninjured when members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group reached them Monday.

“Cold and wet, that would be a pretty good summary,” Bull said. “I was definitely hypothermic. I had been shivering on and off for two days, but it wasn’t beyond that. I was uncomfortable, and I really wanted to be out of there.”

The two geologists were dropped off by helicopter on Maynard Mountain about 9:30 a.m. Aug. 18 in separate locations about a mile apart. Bull was dropped at about 3,650 feet elevation and Gillis was at about 3,400 feet.

The geologists were looking for fracture patterns in bedrock as part of a statewide coastal hazards assessment project aimed at identifying potential landslide areas.

The terrain was especially steep, and the plan was to work for a couple of hours before the helicopter returned to pick them up.

But the weather changed almost as soon as they were dropped off. It went from bluebird skies and no wind to 60 mph wind gusts and pouring rain in a matter of minutes.

“It was one of those crazy, crazy storms that moves in down in that area,” said Bob Swenson, director of the Division of Geological and Geophysical surveys.

The helicopter tried several times to reach Bull but was unable to land because of the wind, he said.

Recognizing the situation and employing their training, both Bull and Gillis, who are experienced backcountry travelers, immediately began building shelters to get out of the wind and rain. They both had good rain gear, but the wind was blowing so strong and it was raining so hard it was impossible to stay dry, both Gillis and Bull said.

“The air is just totally saturated with water in those situations,” Bull said.

She constructed a rock shelter with a small, nylon tarp tied over the top to wait out the storm.

“There was a rock wall a meter high behind me, and I built two rock walls coming out of that,” Bull said. “Then I partially covered the open end with more rocks and my pack.”

She tied her nylon tarp, a 3-foot-by-3-foot square she uses to signal helicopters, over the top of the shelter.

Gillis had slightly better accommodations — he dug a snow cave.

“I was fairly well sheltered from anything,” he said. “There was no wind or rain coming on me.”

Both Bull and Gillis had radios and satellite phones to communicate with their supervisors and rescuers throughout the two days, and rescuers kept in constant touch with both of them, Swenson said.

The decision was made to have Bull and Gillis spend the night on the mountain. The helicopter would attempt to pick them up the next day, weather permitting.

When the weather didn’t improve Sunday morning, DNR officials called troopers and asked for help.

A trooper helicopter carried four members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group as far up the mountain as possible. They set up camp in a saddle about 1,800 feet elevation and a mile walking distance below Bull on Saturday night, Swenson said.

Officials on the ground, meanwhile, talked to Bull and Gillis every hour through the night to make sure they were OK, Swenson said.

“It was one of those situations if we had not had communications it would have been difficult,” Swenson said. “We knew exactly where they were and could talk to them at any time.”

Bull sat in her shelter with a plastic bag over her legs.

“You’d do a little jig in a sitting position and get out of the shelter when you need to move around to get warm and then get back in the shelter,” Bull said.

Both Bull and Gillis had a limited amount of food. Bull had only a few granola bars and a small bag of nuts, while Gillis had a peanut butter sandwich and some Power Bars.

“At nights when the temperature came down, I was bouncing in and out of the initial stages of hypothermia,” Gillis said. “I was conscious of how little food I had. I tried not to eat during the day and eat at night so I’d have something to fuel myself.”

On Monday morning, rescuers hiked up and found a cold, wet, shivering Bull about 8:30 a.m. They warmed her in sleeping bags and gave her hot drinks before hiking back down to their camp. Bull was flown out by military helicopter from the Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage at around 1 p.m.

With Bull off her mountain, rescuers turned their attention to Gillis. The military helicopter transported rescuers as far up the mountain as possible and were able to reach him at 2 p.m. By that time, the helicopter was able to land and pick up both Gillis and rescuers.

Given their backcountry experience — Bull is an experienced mountain climber and skier while Gillis has competed in several ultra-endurance ski and wilderness races — the two geologists might have survived another night, but it was a chance Swenson didn’t want to take.

“With what we had in place and everything, we decided we weren’t going to take a chance and go through another night,” he said, praising the professionalism of the mountain rescue group and troopers.

It was the first rescue operation the agency has had in his eight years at the helm, Swenson said.

As a reward for their perseverance in waiting out the storm for two days, Bull and Gillis didn’t have to go back to work on Tuesday.

“I told them they needed to take a few days off,” Swenson said.

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