Sunday, October 17, 2010

Old Rag Mountain Stewards: Helicopter Rescue

The day started off normally enough for an October weekend.  The leaves have not quite peaked, so nearly everyone in the Mid-Atlantic was out yesterday to hike Old Rag.  The lower parking lot was completely full by 10 a.m. and they were parking people in the neighbor's field (there is an extra charge for that).  At least two large church groups decided to hike yesterday.  The weather was bright, sunny, windy, and a little chilly.  That would mean that it would be really windy and cold on the summit.

Four of us were working with Old Rag Mountain Stewards (ORMS) yesterday.  We split up at the closed upper parking lot, three of us going up the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and one up the Ridge Trail.  This is my favorite time of year to hike the fire road.  The leaves are starting to turn in the valley and the road is covered in those that have already dropped.  The poplars are a combination of green and gold.  Other trees have already turned bright red.  The underbrush has died away and it is possible to see into the forest for the first time in six months.  The dry, cool air makes the long uphill more pleasant than just a month ago.  There are a few flowers still blooming, mostly asters and goldenrods.  Further up, on the Saddle Trail, more leaves were changing and the very last wildflower of the season, Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) has begun to bloom.  H. virginiana is the true sign that the growing season is over. 

Things were actually fairly quiet for a busy fall day when we received a call that there was an injured hiker near on the other side of the summit.  The volunteer on the other side of the mountain soon confirmed that the hiker would not be able to walk out.  We hurried up to the first aid cache, gathered equipment, and continued over the summit.  The half mile from Byrd's Nest Shelter to the summit might be the longest half-mile in the world when there is an emergency on the other side of the mountain.  We crossed the summit after what seemed like an eternity and made our way down to the injured hiker.

Once on the scene, we began the long process of preparing the hiker for a carry-out.  We assumed we would be in for a long carry, at least partially in the dark.  The hiker's location on the mountain was about as far from vehicle access as possible and in the middle of some difficult spots to get a litter over.  It was already 3:30, which meant we only had about three hours of daylight left.  Soon, National Park Service (NPS) personnel began arriving.  We were told that a helicopter would not be possible due to the wind, so we continued preparations for a carry out. 

Moving an injured person safely on the mountain, particularly in the boulder scramble, is a delicate operation that requires many people.  One injured person requires a minimum of 12 people for a short carry and 18 for a longer carry.  Six people are needed to lift the litter and each of them will need to be relieved regularly.  Carrying someone any distance at all is a slow, potentially dangerous process.  Given the late hour, we would be doing most of the work after dark, which is that much more difficult.

We were just about ready to begin the process when we got word that the wind had died down enough to attempt a helicopter rescue.  That raised everyone's spirits, especially the hiker's.  We now just had to move the hiker to a more open spot before the helicopter arrived, which would be in about 30 minutes.  We slowly moved the hiker down over several obstacles.  Soon, we could hear the helicopter in the distance.  We helped the hiker out of the litter so they would be ready for the basket the helicopter was going to drop.

Then the helicopter was circling directly overhead.  It was loud and the rotors blew everything around.  Ironically, the wind also picked back up at that point.  They dropped the basket and the hiker was helped into it.  Then, when the signal was given, they lifted the hiker up and took off across the valley, slowly reeling the basket up.  I would guess that they wanted to get far away from Old Rag's cliffs.  The hiker got a great bird's eye view of Weakley Hollow on their way up.  Then they were gone and it was quiet again.  We began the work of packing everything up and returning gear to the first aid cache.

We were so lucky that the helicopter crew felt it was safe to fly.  Had the winds kept up, they would not have been able to fly.  It certainly is not something we count on, even in serious cases, but it was nice that it worked out yesterday.  Next time, we may very well have to do the long carry out.

Yesterday's situation reminded me what great people we work with in ORMS and in the NPS.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

 Aster sp. on the Weakley Fire Road.

 Changing leaves on the fire road.

 Hay Scented Ferns dying off for the winter.

 Leaves changing on Robertson Mountain.

 Weakley Hollow.

 Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel).  This is the same thing that is used in cosmetics.

 The helicopter circling overhead.

Dropping the basket.


  1. Great work guys! This is the second helo rescue I've heard about in the Park in the last 10 days, there was one a week ago Friday on Stonyman...

  2. Wanderer if you have any nice shots of the Helocopter working and you want to share, the Park Police is looking for some good photos to enlarge, frame and hang in thier offices. alanbwill at g mail.

  3. I was at R30 when the incident happened. The patient was very brave, and we were impressed with the number of park people we passed coming up the back side of old rag as we came down. Kudos to you all for your hard work, it's a good feeling to know you are there for us hikers if anything goes wrong. Thank you.