When helicopter pilot Andy Hermansky left the base camp of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley at 7,200 feet, the winds had subsided to a manageable 50 miles per hour. They’d been much stronger for the past several hours, and there was an injured climber stranded high atop North America’s tallest mountain.
Reaching the climber, who’d broken his leg and was fighting hypothermia, meant navigating high altitude, stiff winds and grave risk. Such challenges are nothing new to Hermansky, a National Park Service contractor who flew 350 hours last year and pulled 14 people off the mountain.
The climber was among four people near the summit on May 11 when it all went bad. They were linked by a rope, and one of the men fell and broke his leg. The others evacuated him to a large, open area called the Football Field, put him in a bivouac shelter and split up to continue down the mountain, according to the Anchorage Daily News. It wasn’t clear why the group split up.
The guide, who himself took a tumble as he descended the mountain, arrived at a camp at 17,200 feet. Climbers used a satellite phone to call for help, because both the injured climber and one other man in the party were still on the mountain. The National Park Service launched a search and rescue operation the next morning. The Alaska Air National Guard spotted the injured climber some time later.
After meeting with rescue rangers at 14,200 feet, Hermansky, who flies for Alaskan helicopter operator TEMSCO, made his first flight of the day to check the conditions where the injured climber sat.
Flying airliners at altitudes of 35,000 feet is routine. But helicopters, with their relatively small rotary wings, struggle in thin air. Hermansky was flying a Eurocopter AS350 B3, commonly known as an “AStar.” The same model made headlines several years ago when a test pilot briefly touched down on the summit of Mt. Everest.
Hermansky flies a stripped-down version to save weight, making it easier to fly at high altitude. After his first check on the climber, during which he flew to 20,100 feet, Hermansky returned to camp and picked up a ranger. He wanted to confirm the helicopter would have enough power to fly with the additional weight.
Satisfied he could make the mission, Hermansky returned the ranger to camp, then set off with a rescue basket dangling 125 feet beneath his helicopter. The wind was strong and steady.
Pilot Andy Hermansky in his AStar hauling a rescue basket near base camp on Mt. McKinley.
Hovering at nearly 20,000 feet, Hermansky placed the rescue basket directly next to the injured climber. The climber managed to pull himself into the basket, and Hermansky set off down the mountain toward base camp. He descended at just 1,000 feet a minute; anything faster would have created unbearable wind chill for the victim.
The rescue happened at 19,833 feet making it the highest altitude rescue ever performed in North America.
“It was a big deal,” Hermansky told the Alaska Daily News.
It was among a very few rescues of its type, but Hermansky’s day wasn’t done. Authorities eventually spotted the body of of the fourth man in the climbing party and dispatched Hermansky and a ranger to retrieve it. It was 18,000 feet up.