YAKIMA, Wash. – Two environmental scientists conducting an assessment on Corral Canyon to determine military training impacts on the local wildlife population were expected back by the evening of June 18. It is now the morning of June 19 and no word has been heard from the two men. Climbing in a rocky terrain poses many threats to both novice and expert climbers, injuries are highly probable, because the men are overdue for their return, a search and rescue mission has been initiated.
The dual forces SAR team must be flown into the last area the environmental scientists were known to be.
Three members of the SAR team arrive by UH-60 Black Hawk, flown by the 66th Theater Aviation Command out of Camp Murray, Wash., and are met by two other members of the team with specialized all-terrain vehicles to begin conducting the search for the missing climbers.
The team begins their search of the area, scouring the landscape for the missing men. It does not take long: after about 30 minutes of searching they notice the men half way down a tall cliff, about 50-feet straight down from the top with no way to climb to the top or bottom.
One of the men is waving his arms, signaling to the team for help. The second man is on the ground, not moving. The situation looks dire, but in this case the men are in no real danger because the team and the two men are operating in a training exercise as part of Operation Evergreen Ember.
The team quickly determines that they need to perform a casualty evacuation featuring a high-angle rescue, meaning the team will need to rappel down the side of the cliff, provide what medical attention is needed and then help the environmental scientists to ascend the cliff to the top.
The team does not waste any time, they use a joint tactical radio system (JTRS) to call back to their support team at Yakima Training Center and report their location and situation. Simultaneously the other four members of the team begin tying down their anchor lines and strapping into their harnesses.
With the safety procedures in place Staff Sgt. Mark Stottlemyre, a special forces medical sergeant with A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group is the first to descend the cliff.
A veteran medic, Stottlemyre has provided medical attention with the Army in both Iraq and the Philippines. He has much experience providing effective medical care in the face of an emergency.
“There were two victims: the first was an environmentalist who was trying to get close to a bird’s nest and fell and fractured his femur,” said Stottlemyre. “Then, his friend did not know how to get to him and spent a bunch of time exposed on the cliffs trying to down-climb to his friend, and eventually made it, got scared, and did not know how to make it back up.”
Stottlemyre conducted a rapid medical assessment on the first victim and decided that due to long exposure to the sun and wind he needed to be treated for dehydration and Stottlemyre administered an IV.
It was clear, however, that the second man was not going to be able to ascend the cliff and the medic called up to his team for a Sked, a lightweight, portable rolled rescue stretcher, to haul the man up. Stottlemyre then followed the procedures to set the man’s broken leg using a Kendrick traction device before administering an IV.
Senior Airman Brant Shaw, a tactical air control party specialist with the 116th Air Support Operations Group, descended the cliff in response to Stottlemyre’s request for equipment, bringing down the Sked for the second victim and a harness for the first victim. Shaw, who currently works for the Forest Service, said the tactics used by his team are not necessarily those used by a civilian rescue service, they are however extremely effective.
“We are trained to both a military and a civilian standard,” said Shaw. “The standard for civilians is the National Fire Protection Association, they have guidelines for safety. So, we utilize those guidelines with military tactics.”
Shaw said the tactic of sending the medic down first is not typical of a civilian SAR team, but because of the specialized training of special forces medics, like Stottlemyre, this tactic is a valuable one available to the Washington National Guard SAR team.
“Because of our experience and our level of training, we felt confident in doing that,” said Shaw. “We make sure the scene is safe, assess the situation, and go from there. That is why we sent the medic down, to assess and see what equipment we needed and what the injuries were.”
Shaw joined Stottlemyre and the two environmental scientists at the site of the accident, strapped the first victim into a harness and helped him to ascend the cliff, giving him instruction and encouragement along the way.
With the three remaining members of the SAR team pulling the men up on a 3-to-1 ratio pulley system that provides a mechanical advantage that reduces the force needed to move the climbers to one third the amount of their actual weight, Shaw and the first victim successfully ascend to the top of the cliff and to safety.
Stottlemyre, still at the base of the cliff gingerly moves the second victim, being portrayed by Sgt. Michael May, a heavy equipment operator with the 286th Engineering Company, in the Sked and secures him into the avocado-green rescue device. After securing the Sked to the safety line, Stottlemyre, balancing the Sked containing May on his knees, begins the long ascension to the top of the cliff.
With May unable to climb and Stottlemyre using much of his energy to get May to the top, Sgt. 1st Class Scott White, a special forces senior communication sergeant with A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, estimates the combined weight of the two men and the medical gear to be around 450 pounds.
As the group noncommissioned officer in charge White had the towing group switch to a 5-to-1 pulley system that reduces the force needed to move the individuals to one-fifth the amount of the actual weight of the two men.
White said the team works exceptionally well because of the dynamic of having both Army and Air Force team members.
“The Air Force guys, the joint terminal attack controllers, the combat control teams, they do the same style of work that we do, think the way that we do, they are independent operators, and it is always really good work for us,” said White. “They always have a good skill set that pairs well with ours and equipment that works well with ours. It’s just a good match.”
Stottlemyre yells for the team to halt toward the end of the ascent to adjust the angle of May so that his head is not hit on the outcrop of rock at the top.
After adjusting the patient, the ascent continues and May is pulled onto the ledge by all five members of the SAR team. Although May is finally on solid ground, the mission is not over yet. The group moves him onto a litter and prepares to carry May up the rocky terrain as a team and finally they load him onto the ATV.
At this point the training is complete and the SAR team releases a relieved and tired-looking May from the Sked. The group is all smiles as they climb back into the ATVs and wait for the Black Hawk that will return them to Yakima Training Center where they will complete an after action review and look at areas they can further improve on in missions in the future.
The exercise gave Stottlemyre some hands-on experience with one specific skill required for high-angle rescue.
“It is very easy to put someone into a Skedco, a litter, when you are in a nice bay somewhere on flat ground, it is much different on a real cliff face with grass and it slides,” said Stottlemyre. “You actually have to balance the patient and figure out how to move them and get them closer to the ropes you are eventually going to attach them to and put them into a field expedient harness. Actually doing that in real life, even in an exercise environment, is good training for me.”
Stottlemyre said the exercise felt real and served as realistic training for a situation that could very well happen.
“From a medical perspective, obviously, we do not have real injuries, but I think the scenario is very plausible,” said Stottlemyre. “There was in fact a bird’s nest down there and environmentalists do hike that canyon looking to study those animals. It is very plausible that someone would try to get a little bit closer than, maybe, they should and overestimate their ability to climb on some of those cliff faces.”