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Canyon rescue: Nellis squadrons help trapped climber

Sep. 6, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Behunin Narrows at Zion National Park in Utah was the scene of a nighttime rescue by two Nellis Air Force Base squadrons of a 33-year-old climber.
Behunin Narrows at Zion National Park in Utah was the scene of a nighttime rescue by two Nellis Air Force Base squadrons of a 33-year-old climber. (Jenny Eberlein / Zion National Park)
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A lightly lit sky, torrential rain and gusty winds awaited members of the 58th and 66th Rescue Squadrons on the night of Sept. 2. Luckily, these airmen from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., are always mission ready.

A dozen of the two squadrons’ members — four mission planners and eight aircraft members — came together when they received a call around 5 p.m. that a climber had fallen almost 100 feet into the Behunin Canyon at Zion National Park, Utah. Already on scene were a park ranger and the climber’s wife.

About nine hours later, the squadrons were able to get to the park in a HH-60 Pave Hawk and help the 33-year-old climber, whose name has not been released. The man had been lying in a “twisted position” all that time.

“Help came just in time,” said Chris Miller, one of the climbers with the group.

“When we got there, you could tell [the climber], you could see it in his eyes, that he was glad to see us,” said Staff Sgt. Dave Farfan, 58th RQS, the pararescueman who was lowered into the canyon by team members hovering above the climber’s position.

“I told him I would be administering some painkillers, and he replied, ‘I would like that very much,’ ” Farfan said.

The climber’s helmet and the damp, “sand-like” ground were the factors that saved his life, Farfan said.

But the climber’s delicate condition wasn’t the only factor putting the squadron members in a time-crunch.

“We had to rush Farfan with the hoist because there was a torrential downpour headed toward us during our second hover,” said Capt. Michael Bush, the pilot with the 66th RQS.

“They worked under very dangerous conditions with a thunderstorm bearing down on them and having to squeeze their helicopter into the canyon, with less than 15 feet of space between the propeller blades and the canyon wall,” Miller said.

Because of high temperatures, which reduced the power margin for the helicopter, the units also administered a “fuel dump” from their aircraft before they left Nellis in order to decrease the weight of the helicopter, Bush said.

The team got the climber packed up and ready in 30 minutes.

After refueling at St. George Airport near Zion National Park, and avoiding another storm, the team, the climber and his wife were finally at the University Medical Trauma Center in Las Vegas at almost 3 a.m. Aly Baltrus, a spokeswoman for Zion National Park, said the climber had surgery Sept. 3.

The hospital reported that he probably would not have survived the night down in the canyon, Miller said.

“The type of mission executed is the standard type of mission and execution of duties we train to know,” said Lt. Col Jason Pifer, deputy commander of the 563rd Rescue Group.

For Farfan and the rest of the 58th RQS members — Capt. Daniel Catino, Tech. Sgt. Ryan Manjuck and Staff Sgt. Brian Silva — hoist and rope rescue and medical trauma training are part of their daily lives.

For the 66th, “we have daily training flights, both night and day, where we practice in conditions like this, with terrain like this,” Bush said. He and his other team members — Staff Sgt. Kevin Darosa, Capt. Ben Mackey and Staff Sgt. Chris Cholet — train every week with the 58th RQS.

“Training with them is a huge factor for why this was successful,” he said.

Catino said it’s hard to say “how many missions we get like this, but probably around five or six a year are local traumas.”

“This is one of those unique situations where these operational squadrons exist to also offer local assistance given that there are such geographic locations around us where there are many climbers and hikers,” Pifer said.

“We’re proud of the manner and the execution of [this] mission. We each have a unique piece to this puzzle and it cannot be executed unless we all come together,” he said.

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