SITKA - A Coast Guard Air Station Sitka helicopter braved near-minimum flight conditions to hoist an injured climber to safety from a peak near Petersburg Tuesday afternoon.
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The high winds, flat light and subfreezing conditions over the rescue site on Devils Thumb made it an extremely difficult mission, said Coast Guard and Sitka Mountain Rescue officials who were on the flight.
The rescued climber, Zac Hoyt, 30, was recovering Wednesday at Petersburg Medical Center from injuries to his shoulder and frostbite on his hands, the Coast Guard said.
"I'm doing all right - I've had better days," Hoyt said Wednesday from his hospital bed.
His climb on Saturday was the first-ever solo winter ascent of the 9,077-foot Devils Thumb, a prominent landmark 25 miles north of Petersburg. Hoyt said he spent the night in a saddle below the peak, and started skiing down on Sunday.
On Monday he fell into a crevasse, but was able to climb out, said Sitka Mountain Rescue Capt. Don Kluting. Hoyt used his satellite phone to call friends in Petersburg to tell them what had happened, and they in turn called the Coast Guard and Sitka Mountain Rescue as well as Petersburg Search and Rescue, Juneau Mountain Rescue and the Alaska State Troopers, Kluting said. Hoyt is a member of the Petersburg search and rescue team, and an experienced climber.
Kluting said it was an "extremely challenging" rescue for the Coast Guard flight crew, which had to battle 60-knot winds, temperatures at minus 24 and poor visibility caused by ice fog and the flat light reflected by the snow at the 5,700-foot level of the mountain where Hoyt was located.
"From my standpoint, in my 20 years doing this, this was extraordinary," said Kluting, who was on the flight, ready to be deployed if needed. "It was pretty amazing to be sitting in the back of that aircraft, listening to the communications on the headset, and watching these guys pull this off, it was unbelievable."
At the controls of the Jayhawk helicopter were Coast Guard Lt. Walter Horne and aircraft commander Lt. Cmdr. Bill Timmons. Karl Schickle was the flight mechanic operating the hoist, and Jon Houlberg was the rescue swimmer. Kluting and Gerald Gangle of Sitka Mountain Rescue were aboard along with Petersburg climber Dieter Klose, who Kluting said is known as the "father of Devils Thumb" because of his expertise and experience climbing on the mountain.
Kluting said Sitka Mountain Rescue received a call from John Pickens of the Petersburg search team at 12:45 p.m. Tuesday. He was informed that Hoyt had been flown in by helicopter to the base of Devils Peak on Saturday, and had made a successful climb to the top.
On Monday, as Hoyt skied and climbed down, he ran into the crevasse at the 5,700 foot level, near the Burkett icefall.
"He knew he had to get out, or he would die down there. He said it was the hardest climb of his life," Kluting said. After Hoyt climbed out using his ice ax and crampons, he used his satellite phone - loaned to him by Klose - to let his friends in Petersburg know his situation.
Sitka Mountain Rescue team members figured Hoyt was probably between Devils Thumb and Mount Burkett.
Kluting, Gangle and other SMR team members Gregory Wong and Dan Baier were flown by the Coast Guard to Petersburg, where Wong and Baier were dropped off to make room for Klose as well as for the man to be rescued.
Kluting estimated temperatures at minus 22 to minus 66 with the 60-knot wind chill.
Shortly after the search began, the helicopter was in VHF radio contact with the Coast Guard command center in Juneau.
"Amazingly enough (Hoyt) heard the VHF radio, and overheard the crew talking to the com Center," Kluting said. "He talked to us and relayed that he wasn't at the 4,000-foot level."
It turned out he was a bit higher, and was able to relay his general location at the 5,700-foot level. Visibility was poor, but someone on the helicopter was able to spot Hoyt's bright yellow Bibler tent after searching about 10 minutes, Horne estimated.
"The pilots decided we'd go in for a hoist attempt," Kluting said. That would require a rock-steady hover in very difficult flying conditions, he added.
"The biggest challenge for people in aviation, especially for anyone who's flown a helicopter: It's hovering," said Horne, the co-pilot. "We had blowing snow, no reference, and high winds. It was the toughest flying I've ever done."
Horne and Kluting complimented Schickle for his work on the hoist, which he operated despite his frozen fingers.
"Karl did a phenomenal job in getting the basket in," Horne said. "There were several crevasses in the vicinity and he managed to get it pretty close to the tent. (Hoyt) ran six or eight steps and was able to get in the basket."
Timmons, the aircraft commander, said he wanted to acknowledge the good work of everyone involved in helping Hoyt get back home safely.
Hoyt said he was thankful to everyone involved in the rescue.