The art of a cliff rescue

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Aviation Survival Technician First Class Obrien Starr-Hollow is lowered to an injured man and a cliff rescue worker 50 feet above the water near North Head Lighthouse near Ilwaco, Wash., July 7, 2011.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Shawn Eggert.
Aviation Survival Technician First Class Obrien Starr-Hollow is lowered to an injured man and a cliff rescue worker 50 feet above the water near North Head Lighthouse near Ilwaco, Wash., July 7, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Shawn Eggert.

With contributions from Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn.

The rocky cliffs and jagged terrain that makes up the Pacific Northwest’s coastline provides a variety of unique missions and challenges for rescue teams.  Crews here perform rescues not only on the water, but also above heavily forested cliffs and mountains.

Rescuing someone stranded hundreds of feet above or below their only exit is a scenario that has played out numerous times for the aircrews at Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Ore.   A cliff rescue, commonly referred to in the Coast Guard aircrew community as a vertical surface rescue, brings new challenges not normally seen on the ocean.

“It’s probably one of the most challenging rescue techniques that we have,” said Chief Petty Officer Jason Schelin, lead rescue swimmer at Air Station Astoria. “I would say the challenge of a cliff rescue exceeds the challenges of a water rescue because you’re not only dealing with the person.  You’re dealing with terrain, the wind, debris and all the different hazards. During a vertical surface rescue, the person could potentially fall and injure themselves more.”

An aviation survival technician from Air Station Astoria, Ore., conducts vertical surface training on the cliffs of North Head in Ilwaco, Wash. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert
An aviation survival technician from Air Station Astoria, Ore., conducts vertical surface training on the cliffs of North Head in Ilwaco, Wash. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Shawn Eggert

The cold and battering weather that’s a regular occurrence along the Oregon coast can cause treacherous conditions during a vertical surface rescue.  Add in the darkness of night, and that can bring on a whole new challenge to the mission.

A call for help came in late one Saturday night to Coast Guard Sector Columbia River.  A 16-year-old hiker had fallen 50 feet off a cliff near Archer Mountain in Skamania County.

Under the night sky, a rescue helicopter crew spotted the stranded teenager on a steep cliffside, along with a friend. Hovering approximately 150 feet above the teenagers, the crew found a small opening to lower Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Gaenzle, the crew’s rescue swimmer.

“I found the cliff was steep with no level areas,” recalled Gaenzle.  “I saw both teenagers.  I knew one of them had fallen over 50 feet, was seriously injured and in a lot of pain. I realized that there would be nobody else who could get him out of there.”

Gaenzle was unable to reach the survivors while remaining clipped into his harness, so he disconnected.  Once he reached the teenagers, Gaenzle realized the injuries of the fallen boy were serious.

“I did a rapid trauma assessment. He had broken bones in his legs and serious back injuries to say the least.”

With the help of the boy’s friend, Gaenzle was able to get him onto a backboard, and then rescue litter, before being safely hoisted into the helicopter on that July night.

It’s during these summer months that tourist find themselves drawn to the amazing sites, beaches and trails along the Oregon coast.  Along those cliffs that meet the ocean are a significant amount of trails that sustain pounding from the elements, which pose a hazard of breaking away due to erosion.

“You have the influx of people during the summer time,” said Schelin.  “That’s usually when we get the most business, if you will.”

In a situation where someone finds themselves trapped alone on the side of a mountain, sometimes the only way to be reached is from the air. And the only thing able to pull them to safety may be the hand of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

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