Man trapped on Mt. Juneau ledge after fall

Hiker says he fell while fleeing bear

Posted: Monday, July 22, 2002

Angel Varela was stuck between a sheer drop and a rock face when Juneau Mountain Rescue crews found him clinging to a ledge in a ravine on the side of Mount Juneau early Sunday morning.

Varela sustained only minor injuries, including a fractured right leg, when he tumbled about 60 feet down the mountain around 7 p.m. Saturday, according to Capital City Fire and Rescue.

Varela, visiting Juneau from Encinada, Mexico, went for a hike late Saturday afternoon and was chased by a bear, according to police. He slipped, slid 60 feet and lost consciousness when he landed on a rock ledge in a stream running off the mountain.

He awoke sometime around 11 p.m. Saturday and began screaming for help. Several residents from the Highlands neighborhood called police when they heard Varela.

Juneau Mountain Rescue, Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, Capital City Fire and Rescue and Alaska State Troopers rushed to the scene and began a search and rescue that lasted more than eight hours.

Juneau Mountain Rescue member Steve Handy said police and a rescue team had trouble finding Varela.

"He was in this rock chasm made by a stream coming down Mount Juneau," Handy said. "But because of the rock his voice was echoing just everywhere. ... Between the rocks, the trees, the water - and you throw on an accent to boot - we had no clue where he was and he didn't know where he was either."

Handy said the team had a general idea Varela was in a stream 900 feet up mountain. Mountain rescuer Doug Wessen said the area is basically a mud slide or avalanche chute.

"We knew we were heading in the right direction because the screams were getting closer," Handy said. "Then I heard enunciation. I heard actual words. I can't tell you this sense of urgency I had - it induced a rush. It was fuel. He was coherent, he wasn't in shock and he was alive. ... I felt like I was so close to him."

Handy said the team had planned to try to go around the rock in the area to reach Varela.

"What a predicament," Handy said. "In a moment like that, when it's life and death and someone needs you, it turns into a very fine line between thinking about what to do and doing it. Before I knew it I was jumping into the ravine and I was in the water."

He climbed straight up into the incline of the falls.

"You're basically like a grub worm looking for whatever you can find in the earth to grab onto," Handy said. "I knew I'd find him. I just had to get in there. I had been shining my headlamp in that general direction. I saw his (chest) and then his face. I told him to wave if he could and I saw his arm. It was just overwhelming, the feeling - we found him."

But the night wasn't over. It had taken three hours to locate Varela. It would take another four to get him down. Handy and the rest of the team climbed closer. When Handy was within 25 feet of Varela he took a look around.

"It was sheer rock face as far as I could see going straight up into the fog," he said. "I couldn't believe how lucky this guy was. On one side was rock face and on the right side a sheer rock cliff darn near 90 degrees and just vegetation. There was no way he was getting out of there without us."

Team members Wessen and Tim Arness located the man with Handy's help. They set up a rope system from the most stable rock and lowered a harness. They gently helped him into a harness not knowing the extent of his injuries, but sure that was the only way he was getting off the mountain, Handy said.

"Anything spiritual that happened to us out there probably happened when we got him in the litter, for me anyway," Handy said. "We were nowhere near home and our work wasn't done yet. Given the hour, we were all just dead-meat exhausted."

Varela was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital where he was treated and released by Sunday evening.

"When I was driving to the debriefing after it was all over I had about 24 hours worth of thoughts in just a few minutes," Handy said. "To be a part of the rescue community, the fact that we all worked together to get a live one off of there so that he could go home - have one hell of a story to tell if nothing else, and maybe realize that he has a bigger purpose in this world. I'm just so proud to be a part of that."

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