Whidbey team airlifts man from Mt. Baker
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:39 PM
"So many things could have gone wrong as Senior Chief Bryce Schuldt climbed the near vertical side of Mt. Baker's Roosevelt Glacier last Sunday.Three days of late June heat had turned the snow above 8,000 feet into perfect avalanche conditions. A slab-sided, 30-foot-wide crevasse blocked his path, and time was running out for a critically injured climber on the other side.As a corpsman with Whidbey Island Naval Air Station's Search and Rescue, Schuldt knew he represented the last chance of survival for climber Alexandre Boulanov. That was shortly before Boulanov's heart stopped.By day's end, Schuldt and the four other Whidbey SAR crewmen would push the limits of their endurance and their helicopter many times before finally airlifting Boulanov to St. Joseph's Hospital in Bellingham. Boulanov died from his injuries Thursday afternoon, four days after he was plucked from the mountainside. But members of the region's life-saving fraternity are calling the rescue one of the best, most difficult they've ever seen.On a scale of one to 10, that was a 10-plus, said Chief Ron Peterson, a 30-year mountain rescue veteran who oversees SAR rescues for the Whatcom County Sheriff's Department. It was the worst time of day for us, the worst technical conditions, and very critical conditions. The whole crew did a marvelous job.The mission started for the SAR crew at 10:30 a.m., when the base duty officer got a call from the Whatcom County Sheriff. Two climbers had fallen from the glacier near the summit. One was dead, the other was critically injured.Boulanov, 35, and 40-year-old David Pougatch had been roped together, 1,500 feet from the 10,800-foot summit, when one of the men lost his hold on the glacier. The two rocketed down the steep slope and Pougatch, who was downslope, died when he disappeared into a crevasse at the 9,000-foot level. Still connected, Boulanov slingshot over the crevasse and slammed into the side of the slope. The impact broke his arms, legs and several ribs. He also suffered a punctured lung and a head injury.Members of three other climbing parties came to pair's aid. One of the climbers had a cellular phone and called for help.By 11:15 a.m., the SAR crew lifted off from NAS Whidbey aboard their 30-year-old, UH-3H Navy Sea King helicopter, Firewood Six. On board were pilot Lt. Chris Cote, flying his first rescue operation; co-pilot and helicopter commander Lt. Cmdr. Scott Parrish; medical technician Schuldt; Chief Frank Leets as crew chief; and crewman Petty Officer First Class Marty Crews.After stopping to pick up Delvin Crabtree, a spotter with Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council, the helicopter headed for the glacier.During the flight, Parrish and Cote calculated the power and fuel they'd need to hover at the 9,000-foot level while Schuldt, Crews and Delvin prepared to be lowered to Boulanov.But the pilots didn't like the numbers they came up with given the temperature, weather conditions and helicopter weight. They decided to jettison fuel and lower the three men further down the mountain, at the 8,000-foot level.Once the three were on the glacier, the helicopter headed back to Bellingham International Airport to refuel.Down on the glacier, the ground crew now faced a 1,000-foot climb up a 45-, then 60-degree slope through wet, unstable snow and ice - all while carrying medical supplies and dragging a rescue litter. On both sides, they saw the tracks of fresh avalanches.With the hot sun on the ice, you get water on the ice and blocks of ice crack and break, Peterson said. It sounds like a small-arms war up there. Schuldt, Crews and Delvin inched up the glacier, kicking and stomping ice steps into the snow for purchase.Lots of times your ice steps would give way, Schuldt said. You'd sink in up to your thighs and start sliding back down the mountain.In good conditions, Schuldt said, the climb would have taken 30 minutes. On Sunday, it took four-and-a-half hours.At the 8,400-foot level, the climbers encountered a wide crevasse with a 30-foot, sheer ice wall on the other side.The Bellingham Mountain Rescue guy said it might go all the way down to Bellingham, Schuldt said.Three members from the rescue party on Boulanov's side of the glacier anchored a rope above the crevasse, then threw it across to Schuldt.Originally the plan was to slide the rescue litter across the crevasse on the rope, secure Boulanov into the litter, then pull the injured climber back over. But then they said the guy was looking bad and at that point I decided to go across, Schuldt said.With crews belaying him, Schuldt crossed the void and climbed the ice wall, then scrambled the last 600 feet up the slope to Boulanov.Within an hour, Schuldt and the rescuers had Boulanov strapped into the litter and were lowering him down the slope. After all that work, however, the injured climber stopped breathing and his heart stopped.At that point, I said, 'You're not dying on me now, not after all this,' Schuldt said. And not after this guy'd been fighting so hard.Crews, who was acting as the communications linchpin for the rescue, called Leets in the helicopter.He said, 'The guy's coded, it's now or never,' Leets said.Once again plans changed.Cote and Parrish had figured for an 8,000 foot rescue when they'd fueled. Now they jettisoned more fuel to lighten their weight, then approached the glacier.Cote brought Firewood Six into a low hover about 50 feet below Boulanov and the rescuers.Down below, Schuldt was administering CPR.Parrish and Leets called out distances as Cote inched the helicopter up the slope, bringing its 30-foot blades within three feet of the glacier at times. The maneuver created wind wash, a technique that gives the helicopter more lift in the high-altitude conditions. It was enough to get the helicopter to the wounded climber.While Cote held the aircraft steady, Leets winched Boulanov and Schuldt up into the sky.The helicopter swept away from the glacier and down to the hospital in Bellingham, as Schuldt and Leets worked to save Bulanov. Schuldt performed CPR, then used the defibrillator.I hit him three times with the paddles, Schuldt said. He was cold, about 91 degrees.The crew reached the hospital in 15 minutes. When Parrish checked the gauges, the helicopter had enough fuel left for about five more minutes of air time.After refueling, the helicopter crew went back to lift the remaining rescuers off the glacier. Crews, who'd been on the mountain for eight hours, collapsed in the back of the helicopter on the way back to Whidbey Island.We were so happy, Parrish said. We felt like we'd gone to the edge. Like you'd done something you'd never done."