When helicopter crews in Western Washington were unavailable Sunday, a team from the Spokane area jumped into action to rescue three hikers from a peak in the Central Cascades.
The call for help came after a fourth member of the hiking group, 61-year-old Ann Nelson, lost her footing on a narrow path and fell to her death on Iron Cap Mountain.
Nelson was an experienced hiker and an accomplished physics professor at the University of Washington, known for speaking out against a lack of diversity among faculty in her department.
Nelson’s husband, David Kaplan, who is also a UW physics professor, was with her for Sunday’s hike along with two friends, the Seattle Times reported. Nelson died before Kaplan reached the spot where she had fallen, the Times reported.
In a statement, UW spokesman Victor Balta said Nelson joined the university in 1994 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Her research focused on particle physics theory.
“Her scholarship, service and dedication to her students and colleagues will be deeply missed,” Balta said.
The volunteer helicopter crew that rescued Kaplan and the other two hikers belongs to the Spokane Regional Air Support Unit, which includes personnel from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, the Spokane and Spokane Valley fire departments, and other local law enforcement agencies.
Around the beginning of the year, the sheriff’s office acquired a Bell UH-1Y Super Huey helicopter through a federal government surplus program, said Cpl. Mark Gregory. It was later outfitted with a cable hoist for technical rescues. The Super Huey, which can hold up to 14 people, is the third helicopter in the sheriff’s office fleet, along with two smaller Bell OH-58 Kiowas, which are used for search, patrol and reconnaissance purposes.
Deputy Chris Bylow, a helicopter crew chief, said his team underwent “some pretty gruesome training” last spring to prepare for cable rescues, a new capability for the sheriff’s office. The crew’s first cable rescue was May 31 in Q’emiln Park in Post Falls. The Super Huey hoisted up a stranded hiker who was suffering from heat exhaustion.
The Iron Cap Mountain incident was the crew’s second cable rescue, and it was much more complicated.
The sheriff’s office said it received a request for assistance from King County authorities shortly before 2 p.m. Sunday. Bylow said King County was unable to assemble a rescue team, while Snohomish County’s helicopter was grounded for maintenance.
The hikers wore bright colors and had summoned help using a GPS device that provided precise coordinates, so the crew from Spokane had no trouble finding them, Bylow said. But the terrain was steep and remote, with jagged cliffs and loose rocks. The mountain peaks at 6,347 feet above sea level.
“Initially, it looked like the mission may be out of our capabilities,” said Bob Nixon, a Spokane firefighter and helicopter medic.
But then the crew realized there was a relatively flat slab of granite beside the hikers, a decent place to hover overhead.
“Weather was in our favor, but there were some swirling winds at the site,” Nixon said.
With Rod Melzer and Chris Debs piloting the chopper and Bylow operating the hoist, Nixon was lowered onto the slab to rescue the hikers one at a time. David Sanchez, a Spokane Valley Fire Department engineer, also was lowered to transfer equipment.
“I was an Army medic for 20 years and had been through flight medic school, but never flew in a flight medic unit,” Nixon said. “So when this opportunity came up and they were looking for folks to participate in the program, I volunteered and was lucky enough to be selected. But getting into the fire service, I never thought that I would be involved in a rescue helicopter.”
The team could see Nelson from the helicopter, but with daylight waning, recovering her body seemed too risky on Sunday. The King County Sheriff’s Office aviation unit went back for her on Tuesday morning.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, to correct the spelling of Bob Nixon’s name.
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