A week from graduating high school, Peter Schutt was physically on top of the world as he climbed Donoho Peak near the Alaska/Canada border.
Unfortunately, Schutt’s adventure took a dangerous turn when an avalanche struck. Snow that was once a fixture on the frigid face of the mountain suddenly cut loose and turned into a freight train of cold, sugary crystals stampeding in rapid, unstoppable motion.
Schutt said the avalanche pitched him over a 75-foot cliff on his tumble down 2,500 feet of the jagged mountain face. He remembers covering his head as best he could to prevent further injury.
After the avalanche, Schutt’s friend and hiking partner made his way down, contacted National Park Service via cell phone and provided cell phone GPS coordinates to aid the rescue response.
Alaska Air National Guardsmen of the 176th Wing partnered with multiple civil search and rescue partners to rescue Schutt during the May 26, 2021, ordeal.
Following weeks of recovery, Schutt, with several family members, visited the 176th Wing July 9 to share his story, tour the aircraft involved in the rescue, and thank his rescuers.
Following Schutt’s fall, National Park Service contacted the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at 6:20 p.m. to notify them of the incident and request a hoist-capable aircraft be on standby. Snow conditions and steep terrain on Donoho made it impossible for the National Park Service A-Star helicopter to reach the injured hiker, and at 8:05 p.m. the NPS requested Air National Guard support.
“The patient lost footing and rolled hundreds of feet down a snow-covered slope near Donoho Peak in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve,” said NPS Ranger and incident commander Stephens Harper. “The fall triggered a snow slide, which then carried the patient over a cliff into a ravine.”
Schutt’s father, Aaron, was boarding a plane bound for Minnesota when he got the phone call no parent wants to receive. He was told the fall was “not a survivable incident.”
“Which is what you don’t want to hear as a parent,” he recalled.
Wrangell Mountain Air, a private charter company, spotted Schutt, confirmed his location, and relayed GPS coordinates to the National Park Service who then relayed the information to the AK RCC.
With coordinates in hand, the AK RCC contacted the 176th Wing who dispatched a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, a 211th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II and a 212th Rescue Squadron Guardian Angel team comprising pararescue personnel (PJs).
First responders from Kennicott Wilderness Guides, who are also Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Search and Rescue Team members, hiked a couple of miles to the ravine. They provided emergency medical care while on the phone with the National Park Service Alaska Region medical director who is also an emergency room physician for Alaska Regional Hospital.
The NPS helicopter flew to the area but was unable to land safely, so they air-dropped medical supplies to the first responders and notified Harper of the need for a hoist and litter to safely move the patient off of the mountain.
The danger on the mountain didn’t dissolve when help arrived.
“While on the phone with [the doctor], they heard the snow shifting above them and moved the patient to higher ground before a second snow slide traveled down the ravine,” Harper said.
Maj. Ben Leonard, 210th RQS HH-60 rescue pilot, said the crew was training for the week at Eielson Air Force Base, about 300 miles north of their home base of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Leonard said the training proved helpful during the real-world rescue after Master Sgt. Tim Ching, HH-60 special missions aviator, completed 23 simulated hoists during four hours of training.
“In particular that week, we had done a ton of hoist training, especially high-angle hoist training, which is the scenario you ended up in later that week.,” he said. “In the days prior, we had flown a lot as a crew, and Tim had done what I would call a record number of live hoists in very challenging scenarios with the PJs.”
Once on-scene, the Air National Guard pararescue team of Senior Master Sgt. Bryan Dalere and Senior Airman Nathan Graber hoisted down to Schutt’s location where they provided additional medical support and stabilized him for hoist to the helicopter. Looking through the window, HH-60 rescue pilot Maj. Jake Ring said he marveled at the cliff fall Schutt survived.
“I remember looking up and thinking that has to be at least 80 feet,” he said.
The Pave Hawk crew transported Schutt to the McCarthy Airport where he was transloaded to a Guardian Flight AirMedCare air ambulance and taken to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.
This rescue involved coordination between multiple agencies, including the 176th Wing, Alaska Air National Guard, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve Search and Rescue Team, National Park Service Fire Management in Fairbanks, National Park Service A-Star Helicopter, Wrangell Mountain Air, Guardian Flight, and Kennicott Wilderness Guides.
“It was the people, including Peter, with his will to live,” Aaron said in crediting the save. “His friend who was with him called for help immediately, and they got down to him within an hour and did all the right things on the ice – kept him as comfortable as possible, kept him alert, and continued to talk to his mother.”
During the July 9 visit, Schutt’s family toured a 211th RQS HC-130 as well as the HH-60 that rescued him. Maj. Stephen Ludwig, 176th Wing Exercise and Planning officer and Combat King pilot, coordinated the event and gave Schutt a detailed rundown of the HC-130 flight deck.
“It’s always great, working in the RCC and working here, having survivors come back and share their stories, and to put a face to ” Ludwig said.
After recalling the events of May 26, Aaron expressed his appreciation of the multi-agency team that rescued his son.
“We’re just very thankful to all of you and what you do on a daily basis.,” he said.