‘We were all amazed’: Air Guardsmen save 2 hunters in precarious cliff rescue near Tonsina

two hunters
Two sheep hunters were rescued Aug. 11, 2023 by the Alaska Air National Guard from a 6,000-foot-high cliff near Tonsina. Both hunters were wearing camouflage, with one wearing a white backpack (upper center) and the other just to the left. (From Alaska Air National Guard)

Two sheep hunters were rescued near Tonsina last week by an Alaska Air National Guard helicopter crew, after a pilot said they spent about two hours “just hanging on to a cliff face” thousands of feet above the ground.

According to Guard officials, the hunters used an inReach satellite device to report Friday evening that they were trapped on the cliff near Tonsina, about 165 miles east of Anchorage.

Guard Capt. Tim Lezama said the call came in at about 6 p.m. Friday after the hunters had followed a sheep onto the cliff, prompting an urgent rescue mission. He said his Pave Hawk helicopter and a rescue plane carrying pararescuemen, or PJs, were scrambled in half an hour from Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and made the flight in about 50 minutes.

The hunters had reported that they were wearing camouflage, which Lezama said made spotting them on the 6,000-foot-high cliff difficult.

a pararescueman
Alaska Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Michael Rogers, a 212th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, hoists from an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter during the rescue. (From Alaska Air National Guard)

“They were pretty much on the cliff’s face,” Lezama said. “Like the way the PJ described it was, they pretty much had a foot on a rock and they were just holding on.”

The helicopter crew opted against immediately hovering over the cliff, Lezama said, due to fears of rotor wash blowing the hunters off its face. Instead, the two PJs first secured belay lines at the top of the cliff and draped them over the edge, giving the hunters something to hold on to during the rescue.

a pararescueman
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Weltman, a pararescueman with 57th Rescue Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy, hoists a stranded sheep hunter. Weltman was on a rescue exchange with JBER’s 212th Rescue Squadron. (From Alaska Air National Guard)

Then the Pave Hawk lowered one of the PJs to the cliff on a line, where he hoisted up one of the hunters before the other PJ hoisted the second hunter. Lezama said it was a 140-foot vertical lift each time.

“Within 15-ish minutes, 15, 20 minutes of us getting there on scene, we were hoisting them off,” he said.

After a midair refueling from the rescue plane, the Pave Hawk’s crew was able to drop the hunters off with an Alaska State Trooper near the trailhead at which they had parked. Neither of them was injured.

Although Lezama has been flying in Alaska for six years, conducting another cliff rescue of an injured hiker the day before the Tonsina flight, he said the hunters’ position was uniquely precarious.

“We were all amazed at the situation they were in to begin with, because they were pretty much just hanging on to a cliff face,” he said. “There was nowhere for them to really go, outside of us picking them off that cliff face.”

Lezama credited the hunters’ decision to carry a satellite communicator – rather than just a cellphone, which can’t summon help in vast areas of Alaska’s backcountry beyond cell tower coverage – with saving their lives. Precise coordinates provided by the device also helped Guardsmen locate the duo despite their camouflage.

In addition, he had high praise for the hunters’ stamina during the rescue.

“That was impressive to us also, that they were able to just hang on for that long,” Lezama said.

JBER’s Alaska Rescue Coordination Center oversaw the rescue, which involved personnel from the Guard’s 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons.

Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cklint@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Chris here.

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