(Revised on June 7 to include the pilot in the list of people who received awards.)
Four park rangers and a helicopter pilot at Yosemite National Park received awards on May 8, 2014 from Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell for an incredible rescue which required suspending personnel 150 feet below a helicopter that was hovering for an extended period of time close to the vertical rock face of El Capitan in California.
On September 26, 2011 a climber suffered a lead fall which resulted in the amputation of his thumb. Miraculously, the thumb fell onto a nearby ledge and was recovered by the climber’s partner. A traditional rescue from that location involves inserting a team onto the summit, lowering a rescuer 1,000 feet to the injured climber, and then lowering the injured climber and rescuer an additional 2,000 feet to the ground. That takes many hours, would have been complicated by darkness, and would have significantly reduced the chance of successfully reattaching the thumb. Instead, an advanced and experimental technique was used which involves establishing a tag line from the helicopter to the vertical wall. This technique, practiced but never before employed in an actual rescue, requires a long hover time by the pilot while spotters and riggers on board the helicopter establish a fixed line and monitor the helicopter’s position.
Assistant Helitack Foreman Jeff Pirog rigged the tag line and monitored tail and rotor clearances while the helicopter hovered in close proximity to the wall. Yosemite Helitack Foreman, Eric Small, established the tag line from the helicopter by throwing a weighted ball with an attached string from the open door of the helicopter to the injured climber. Once the tag line was established, Mr. Small dropped his end of the tag line down the 150-foot long short haul line to the rescuers suspended blow.
At the end of the short haul rope, Jeffery Webb and David Pope used the tag line to pull themselves over to the climbers and prepared the injured person for evacuation. When they were ready, Mr. Pope and the injured climber were released from the wall and onto the short haul system. The helicopter, piloted by Richard B. Shatto, transported them to El Capitan Meadow where the injured climber and his amputated thumb were transferred to an air ambulance. Later that night doctors successfully reattached the thumb.
Mr. Webb remained on the wall with the injured climber’s partner overnight; they were evacuated the following morning.
Department of Interior Valor Awards were given to the four NPS personnel mentioned above: Jeff Pirog, Eric Small, Jeffery Webb, and David Pope. The pilot, Mr. Shatto, was not a DOI employee and therefore not eligible for a Department Valor Award, but he did receive a Citizens Award for Bravery from Secretary Jewell.
The amount of expertise required to accomplish something like this is mind-boggling — the training, planning, helitack skills, pilot skills, and rock climbing experience. And to pull it off expertly during an emergency is very impressive and certainly worthy of a major award. Congratulations to all five.