Incredible rescue in Yosemite earns valor awards

Park Rangers Jeffery Webb and David Pope
Park Rangers Jeffery Webb and David Pope suspended below a hovering helicopter, pull themselves up against a rock face to rescue an injured climber. If you look carefully, you can see the small red line between the helitack personnel and the climbers. DOI photo.

(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.

Yosemite awards
L. to R.: Jeff Pirog, David Pope, Eric Small, Secretary Jewell, Jeff Webb, and Richard Shatto.

Our thoughts

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.

6 thoughts on “Incredible rescue in Yosemite earns valor awards”

  1. I am astonished that the pilot was not included in the award! The level of skill necessary to accomplish this precision hover is extraordinary and should be recognized and commended, for without it all of the efforts of the others wouldnt have been put into play.

  2. When Cal Fire made a decision to provide air rescue (short haul, static and dynamic) management (Cal Fire) adopted the Park Service program. There is short haul, and SHORT HAUL Park Service style, incredible! The helicopter contractor and pilot should have certainly been part of the award process. Maybe they will be featured and given recognition in Vertical. (helio mag).

  3. As a Cal Fire helitack captain one thing I remember about assisting the Park Service in Yosemite (fires) is that on the timber covered areas above these giant monoliths; (one raising over 4700 feet vertically from the Yosemite Valley floor) there is a vertical jet stream (20 knots ?) from the valley floor to the top of the monolith. I don’t know how many of these rescues are accomplished every tourist season by Crane Flat Helitack (Yosemite N.P.) but to say that its incredible is a understatement.

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