Beneath blistering heat, the Coast Guard performed two mountain rescues in Sitka in a single day this weekend: one near a lake and another atop a dormant volcano, both hikers struck down by heat exhaustion. KCAW had unusual access to the first rescue.
Yoni Papanikolaou is 26-years-old and came to Sitka as part of a fellowship to do historic restoration work at the Sheldon Jackson Campus this summer. He joined a group of other fellows on a bucket-list item: a trip up Mt. Edgecumbe on Friday (08-04-17).
After spending a night at a shelter along the trail, they tackled the summit when the sun was near its peak. That’s when Papanikolaou ran into trouble. “I was getting really hot, really dizzy, and very, very nauseous. Right up to the fifth marker, I lost my footing and my legs locked up on me,” he said.
Papanikolaou fell and started sliding down the volcano, but luckily stopped. Pain was shooting up his legs, his muscles in spasms. The sun didn’t help. “I’m from Florida, so I’m used to 100 degree weather. I’m used to rip tides and currents and the ocean, but I’m not used to mountains,” he said.
His heat exhaustion set in around 11:45 a.m. Papanikolaou called Larry Jackson, the fellowship coordinator,. Jackson called Sitka Search and Rescue, who gave word to Air Station Sitka and about two hours later…
An orange and white helicopter bobbed into view. Papanikolaou’s hiking party had an orange tarp on hand, that they strung above his head to provide shade.
I happened to be climbing Mt. Edgecumbe too, that day. My group saw the tarp miles away – an orange square on a slope of green, just below the crater – and reached Papanikolaou’s elevation when the Jayhawk arrived.
The MH-60 Jayhawk was piloted by Benjamin Neal and Matt Vanderslice, with rescue swimming Tyler Sojka and flight mechanic Daniel Cronick aboard. When the call arrived at 12:35 p.m., they were flying near Prince of Wales Island and made a beeline to Sitka.
Fuel was running low, but Neal said that may have benefitted the mission. “The aircraft was lighter and therefore didn’t have the same power requirements that it would if it was heavier. The combination of being light on fuel, totally daytime, bright, and just that little bit of wind…it was actually pretty ideal circumstances for us to hoist,” he said.
Upon reaching Mt. Edgecumbe, the crew lowered Sojka and then a rescue basket, which Papanikolaou climbed into. He was hoisted with dizzying speed into the sky around 1:45 p.m. The rescue crew was on scene for less than 20 minutes with a dozen spectators watching from below. The wind from the propellers was immense, kicking up grass and red dust in our faces.
“That was the first time I’ve had so many people around in such close proximity to the aircraft,” said Neal. He advises those who witness a rescue to give the Coast Guard helicopters a wider berth. “I don’t know if people have an appreciation for how much rotor wash the aircraft generates. It was definitely a concern for us because we didn’t want to be directly overhead.”
Of his ride in the basket, Papanikolaou said, “It was kind of almost like a roller coaster feeling. You know? When you kind of go over the edge a little bit. But a very surreal experience and feeling.”
The hiking party had the same reaction, shielding their eyes from the sun as the Jayhawk peeled off into the sky. Lars Archer turned to me and said, “That was pretty amazing. I’d seen a couple of rescues before, but to have the helicopter right there was pretty surreal.”
Up in the helicopter, Papanikolaou had his vitals checked. When the crew landed in Sitka, they were greeted by an ambulance. “I declined to go the hospital,” Papanikolaou said, “because I didn’t really have internal injuries. I just needed to get a lot of rest and hydration.”
Saturday was one of the hottest days Sitka has seen all year, with a high of 69 degrees at Rocky Gutierrez Airport.
Shortly after they landed, the Coast Guard received another call. A 23-year-old female hiker was experiencing heat stroke symptoms on a ridge between Indigo Lake and 5390, the tallest peak on Baranof Island. They got the call at 3:05 p.m. and refueled.
The hiker was roughly 3000 feet above sea level. Her party made contact with the Coast Guard through VHF radio over channel 22A. The crew included pilots Josh Tabor and Joseph Plunkett, rescue swimmer Ben Dent and flight mechanic Dennis O’Reilly.
Plunkett said they found the hiker “in good spirits.” She boarded the helicopter and after a 10-minute flight, was taken to a local hospital in Sitka for treatment.
As for Papanikolaou, he knew about the Coast Guard before coming to Alaska — but only from a distance.
“I guess I’d seen them in documentaries and movies, but actually experiencing being rescued out there…I just have such a deep appreciation for what they do. I think they have a seriously important job in saving lives.”
And if Papanikolaou could do it again, he said he’d tackle Mt. Edgecumbe with more than three liters of water and a bigger hat.