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Rescue at Wind River Cliff

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Interview with Kevin Hawley

Story by Janet Ferguson

It began

This past July two native Lima residents, Kevin Hawley and Charles Johns (LCC graduate) were preparing to hike up Gannett Peak in Wyoming.

“Charles lives in Rock Springs, WY now, and Gannett Peak has been on our radar for some time. It is a very committing alpine peak, not technical per se, but very physical and time-consuming, requiring an 18-mile hike with full packs to a base camp, and another 16 hours, and about 4000 vertical feet of very exposed rock and snow glacier climbing to the summit and back. For that reason, Gannett is considered a stepping stone to the real big peaks like Denali and others in North and South America. Charles suggested it to me a few years ago, and a friend of mine who is a professional climber strongly recommended it to me last January when I was climbing in the White Mountains in New Hampshire.”

Kevin Hawley and Charles Johns were preparing to hike up Gannett Peak in Wyoming before their plans abruptly changed.

Photo courtesy Kevin Hawley

Photo courtesy Kevin Hawley.

Photo courtesy Kevin Hawley.

Hawley and Johns, along with Justin Hilton, had hiked the 18 miles to the Titcomb ‘Basin in the Bridger Wilderness’ where the Gannett Peak is located. Hawley shared that the night before the climb, “A guy covered in blood stumbles into our camp, asking if we have a satellite uplink to send out a 911 call. He and his friend had been fishing in a lake on the other side of a 12,500-foot peak and decided to come down the other side of where they had ascended. They were climbing down an unexpectedly treacherous descent and one of them had been hit by a large boulder in the back of his leg, suffering a compound fracture. He was stuck on a ledge about 600 feet above the Glacier floor. We didn’t have an uplink, so he ran down the valley, looking for a cell phone bounce, which sometimes you can get.  He took off and apparently was able to get through and communicate his friend’s GPS coordinates before being cut off.”

In the meantime, Hawley, Johns, and Hilton talked things over, and because they hadn’t seen the guy return, chose to climb up a 400-foot steep boulder field to the Twin Glacier with warm clothes, food, and water for the injured friend. When they got up to the top they found a group of people gathered looking up where they thought the injured guy, Max Ayers, was located. “No one seemed anxious or equipped to reach Max, who is about 600 vertical feet up on a ledge above steep glacier snow and several rock bands.”

Ascent to Help

About 7 p.m., the friend returns and tells the group of people that he may have gotten the coordinates to 911. “So Charles, Justin and I put on our crampons and began climbing about 400 feet of steep ice and snow, and about 200 more feet of class 4 rock to get Max.  Any rescue by Search and Rescue (SAR) was going to have to come very soon, as darkness would happen around 8:30.  We reached Max about 7:30. Charles and I were up on the ledge (about the size of a dining room table) with Max, and Justin was on a ledge below. We asked Justin to stay there, to give us some help in the first part of our ultimate descent (to which we had given little if any thought).”

Kevin shared that nothing like this had ever happened to him or Charles before. “I don’t think it is common for hikers to run into this kind of thing.  But hiking and mountaineering is an inherently dangerous kind of activity.  When something goes wrong, it is probably going to be bad, with a high risk of cascading to even worse.  None of this would seem all that remarkable to a professional climber.  Lots of them pay their own money to become SAR certified.”

Once they arrived where Max was, they discovered that he was incredibly calm and handling it all very well. Kevin remembered that, “Max was a bloody mess with a compound fracture or two in his lower leg.  We gave him a down jacket, got him in an emergency bivy sack and made him eat and drink. Charles determined that his injuries, while severe, were stable. Max clearly was aware of that.”

“I think everyone was a little apprehensive about what was going to happen when SAR arrived.  Even after Charles had taken care of the basics, I was probably a little curt with the Max, making him put on my down jacket, and insisting that he eat and drink more. Charles was having a conversation with him about his home and business in Colorado.  So I relaxed a little and asked him about family and so forth.”

“Although he was in a lot of pain, he was amazingly calm already.  Charles and I just made sure that the rote rescue things like warm clothes, food, and water, were taken care of. I don’t know how to describe him, other than to say he was one of these young, laid back outdoorsman type guys you see everywhere in the mountain west, with a beard and a pronounced laid back “aw shucks” attitude.  Very good, considering he had just gotten blasted in the back of the leg by at least a 50 pounds plus boulder.”

Within about 10 minutes, a helicopter arrived and spent a while working to figure out the location. “When the helicopter was positioned 80 feet above us, its rotors were only 20 feet or so from the mountain rock. It was extremely delicate, dangerous flying.  Real pros – these people! The helicopter decided to lower down two SAR volunteers, one man and a female med tech – both very tough people. When the guy came in, he brought a sense of urgency, informing Charles and me that we were in for the duration of the rescue. He told us they needed us to help them quickly get Max secured or we would all be there all night. He was very emphatic about that. He was just as emphatic that because of an 8:30 curfew for the helicopter, we were going to be on our own after they left because the helicopter had a curfew.  He said if we needed it, they would be back in the morning.”

 Photo courtesy Justin Hilton. Instagram @exsolifestylez.

Photo courtesy Justin Hilton. Instagram @exsolifestylez.

 Photo courtesy Justin Hilton. Instagram @exsolifestylez.

Photo courtesy Justin Hilton. Instagram @exsolifestylez.

“The SAR gal brought in some more urgency.  I think she may have been the head of the organization, and you could tell she was used to being in charge – probably ex-Army.  She told Max that it was not going to be comfortable for him hanging 80 feet under a moving helicopter 1000 feet above an alpine valley.  Then, after she checked out his injuries and got the entire process going, the SAR guy, Charles and I packed up Max – first into a climbing harness, then a vacuum/compression bag, and then a dry bag.  After the first SAR guy was lifted off by himself and taken down to the valley, the helicopter returned to pick up the SAR gal and Max, and took them down to another medical evacuate helicopter. At that point, our conversation turned to the challenge of getting down from the ledge. But every minute or so one of us would burst out in expletives saying, ‘Can you believe we were in that sh-t storm?’ Before taking off, the SARS guy told us we were on our own descending in the dark.  If we got in trouble, they would have to return the next day.”


Kevin remembered he was pretty focused on getting down in the dark after the SAR evacuated Max. “We had a couple of hundred feet of class 3* and 4 downclimbing, and it turned out Justin didn’t have a headlamp. Downclimbing the exact way we up climbed was out of the question, so I asked Justin to look for the best way to climb down in the dark because he had a better vantage point.  I was even more concerned that SAR would not allow us to downclimb, and they would force us to evacuate by helicopter, maybe even back to Pinedale, WY, 20 miles down the valley.”

But they descended the class 4 rock pretty easily, with Justin’s help. Hawley added, “Then I helped Justin climb down the glacier snow.  Turned out this was the first time Justin had ever been on a glacier, and the first time he had ever worn crampons or used an ice ax.  He went up the glacier like a house afire, but was pretty terrified coming down, which is a lot harder, but I showed him how to do that, and he got down fine.”

Kevin explained, “Justin’s lack of glacier experience merely shows how selfless his actions were, in particular.  He didn’t mention it until after we had down climbed a bunch of fourth class rock and were just getting onto the glacier ice and snow.  I showed him how to do it, and he got the hang of it pretty quickly.  But his legs were shaking a lot.  He kept his composure, and he is a very tough guy, a professional MMA fighter, in fact. Here is a guy who has never been on a glacier in his life, and he’s running up a steep slope in crampons like he’s done it all his life.”

“We didn’t get back to our camp until 10, too late to do Gannett the next day due to its 2:30 AM start time.  So we went up the day after, another 18 hour day of climbing up and down several other glaciers. Got spectacular pictures of that, too, but hard to compete with the earlier excitement of the rescue!”

*According to the American Safe Climbing Association (asca) http://www.safeclimbing.org/about_overview.htm

“3rd class – steep scrambling with exposure, ropes are needed for inexperienced people. An unroped fall on 3rd class terrain would likely be fatal.

4th class – steeper scrambling on small holds, ropes are needed for most people, but an experienced climber would normally climb an entire rope length without intermediate protection, then set an anchor and belay other climbers up. Inexperienced people may not be skilled enough to ascend even when belayed from above.”