Soaking wet and hypothermic, Keith Hutchins stood on a rocky ledge with nowhere to go, trapped on Mount Ripinsky, Alaska. As he leaned against the mountain, 2,500 feet off the ground, there was no way of knowing if he would be there another 20 hours or if a rescue crew would be there to save him.
Hutchins was hiking on the mountain’s trail when there was a drastic change in weather. Becoming disoriented in whiteout conditions, he was caught in an avalanche and slipped, falling hundreds of feet onto a rocky ledge.
Remarkably, Hutchins still had signal on his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1. Mountaineers and rescue personnel from Haines Volunteer Fire Department, Juneau Mountain Rescue and Skagway Fire Department headed out to free Hutchins, but due to poor weather conditions and the steep terrain rescuers couldn’t reach him from below. They had to try from above and knew just who to call.
The crew of CG6038 – Lt. Andy Schanno, Lt. Mike Snyder, Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Giumette and Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Powers – had only been on duty for a few minutes at Air Station Sitka when they got the call to launch for the rescue.
Rescuers weren’t sure where exactly Hutchins was, so the crew of the 6038 used their searchlight and flew back and forth across the base of the mountain below the clouds. Hutchins, in contact with mountain rescue, could see the searchlight and reported when he saw the beam directly below him.
The crew had a better idea of where Hutchins was, but the whiteout forced the rescuers to make a tough call – they would have to leave Hutchins overnight.
“It was a bit discouraging to have to leave him there, but there was no possible way to rescue him,” said Powers, the crew’s rescue swimmer. “If he could just hang in the night ‘till the next day we were sure, if the weather cooperated, that we could rescue him.”
The crew awoke the next morning and awaited a break in the weather. As snow and wind churned around the airport, a gap in the clouds came.
The crew hovered around the mountain’s rock outcroppings and trees, now fully encased with ice. After multiple passes, the crew spotted Hutchins. Schanno, the aircraft commander, and Snyder positioned the helicopter as Powers was hoisted below the helicopter.
“Nick Giumette, the flight mechanic, conned the helicopter into perfect position,” said Powers. “I bounced along the icy cliff side and ended up in a powdery, snowy ravine just below the survivor’s legs.”
After close to a day spent standing upright, thousands of feet up a mountain, Hutchins was safe.
“I just wanted to give the guy the biggest hug in the world,” recounted Hutchins in an interview after the rescue. “I was like dude you just saved my life.”
The crew of CG6038 were true heroes that day. They made the peaks of our nation’s Last Frontier just one other place the Coast Guard saves lives – even if it was from a mountaintop.
“I never imagined I’d be plucking people off mountains when I was growing up in western Pennsylvania,” said Snyder, the co-pilot. “It’s an indescribable feeling to help somebody like that. “
“I sincerely never envisioned myself being put into a position to save people’s lives, not to mention from a helicopter in Alaska,” added Powers. “It’s extremely gratifying and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The crew of CG6038 will be honored at the Coast Guard Foundation‘s 31st Annual Salute to the United States Coast Guard next Thursday alongside a rescue crew from Coast Guard Station Tillamook Bay. Stay tuned next week to hear their story!