ST. GEORGE — Four teens stranded in the Pine Valley wilderness were rescued miles from their destination after an 11-hour coordinated effort involving a ground team, an Intermountain Life Flight crew and a rescue squadron from Nellis Air Force Base that deployed two Blackhawk helicopters to Southern Utah to assist.
Updated Nov. 17, 9:51 a.m.: The Blackhawk helicopters mentioned in the article were actually Pave Hawk helicopters, which are unique to the United States Air Force, and the 66th Rescue Squadron was joined by four members of the 58th Rescue Squadron during the incident. According to an email sent to St. George News, the selection process to become a pararescueman or “PJ” has the highest attrition rate of any special operations unit in the military, but they are largely unknown in the civilian world.
Shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday, Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin, who serves as the liaison for the agency’s search and rescue program, received a call from Cedar City emergency dispatch advising that four teens, ages 17-19, were stranded in a foot of snow in the Pine Valley wilderness near the Whipple Trail in Washington County.
According to the initial report, the teens had run out of water and were boiling snow to remain hydrated. Cashin was also advised that one of the hikers was possibly suffering from altitude sickness; the hikers were stranded at an altitude of 8,500 feet. He was reportedly conscious but unable to hike out on his own.
The teens had set out on the Whipple Trail, a 12-mile trail near Pine Valley, two days before and were hiking toward New Harmony when they became stranded nearly 7 miles short of their destination.
As a team of eight rescuers was assembled and dispatched to the area, Intermountain Life Flight was also requested to provide aerial assistance in locating the group as the rescue team set out to make the trek on foot.
The flight crew advised Cashin they had located the hikers and found a landing spot that was 2 miles from where the group was located. Since it was late at night and one hiker was in serious physical distress, the flight nurse and another crew member set out from the landing zone to reach the teens on foot.
Cashin said the Life Flight helicopter had no hoist capabilities, which would be required since one of the hikers was no longer ambulatory and was unable to hike out on his own. An Intermountain helicopter capable of a hoist rescue was in Utah County at the time and would not be available until 6:30 a.m. the following day.
That was not a viable option, since there is a sense of urgency associated with a hiker suffering from altitude sickness, he said. The only way to alleviate the symptoms is to get the patient to lower elevation. Otherwise, he said, it can cause the brain to swell as well as other pulmonary issues that once they start, they only continue to get worse until the person can get to a hospital and be treated.
As such, he started making calls to the Utah Department of Public Safety’s helicopter rescue team, which had the equipment needed, only to learn they were unable to assist at that time.
With no other options available, and with time running out, Cashin said he made a call to the U.S. Air Force command station in Florida, which coordinates all military rescue operations throughout the country.
“I got a call from the commander in Florida that the 66th Rescue Squadron out of Nellis Air Force Base accepted the mission and would send two Blackhawk helicopters to assist,” Cashin said.
Meanwhile, the Life Flight crew had reached the hikers and were assessing their condition, information that was relayed to the command post set up in New Harmony. The crew sent word that one of the hikers was in serious condition and was suffering from altitude sickness, dehydration and exposure, and unable to walk safely or hike out. The remaining three were exhausted and dehydrated, but otherwise healthy.
The medical crew remained with the stranded group throughout the night, Cashin said, providing food, water and blankets as they kept authorities updated as to the hikers’ condition. Ground crews continued hiking toward the teens, providing information on the terrain and area as they did so, until they were called back several hours later.
A little more than an hour later, the military helicopters arrived and flew directly to the location where the group was waiting. Within minutes, the hiker in serious condition was hoisted into the helicopter and flown directly to Dixie Regional Medical Center.
The Air Force made multiple trips flying two at a time until the three remaining hikers and two flight crew members were picked up and flown to the command post.
Once there, the hikers were picked up by one of the teens’ fathers who was waiting at the command post to drive them home.
Cashin said it was a long, complicated rescue that took place in a rugged area with steep drop-offs, large boulders and narrow trails in the middle of the night, with fresh snow on the ground and temperatures hovering in the teens.
Even so, he said, thanks to the efforts of the ground teams, the Life Flight crew and the Air Force, which sent two state-of-the-art helicopters and crews to assist, the teens and everyone involved made it to the command post safely.
Additionally, he commended the efforts of the Life Flight crew, who could have flown the area to provide an accurate location to where the stranded boys were located and then returned to the helipad at the hospital.
“That’s not what they did though,” Cashin said.
Instead, they hiked more than 2 miles through the snow and in darkness to reach the teens, and then remained there throughout the night. In fact, they were the last to be flown off the mountain. They did that, he said, to make sure the teens would be okay. A second helicopter also arrived after daybreak in case further assistance was needed.
He also commended the efforts of the Air Force crew, which made multiple trips to get all seven to safety. Cashin said both crews were happy they were able to assist in the recovery effort that ended shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday.
“We couldn’t do what we do without help, and thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, four young men are back with their families,” he said.
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