Guardsmen relive “the quintessential Alaskan rescue”

Dogs have a funny way of showing gratitude. After being flown to safety from atop Eagle Summit during the worst blizzard in the Yukon Quest’s…

Dogs have a funny way of showing gratitude.

After being flown to safety from atop Eagle Summit during the worst blizzard in the Yukon Quest’s race history by air national guardsman Dave Looney, Hoss, an Alaskan husky, was reacquainted with his saviour Thursday in Fairbanks at thank-you barbecue on Eielson Air Force Base.

After a quick wag of his tail, Hoss turned and promptly relieved itself on Looney’s uniformed leg.

A good-natured fellow, Looney just laughed it off and continued petting the dog, which belongs to former Quest champion Aliy Zirkle.

However, it wasn’t Zirkle who drove the team into the raging storm on February 13.

It was Quest 300 musher Randy Chappel.

He leased some of Zirkle’s dogs and subsequently lost the sled, and the string of dogs attached, while trying to descend the mountain in the storm.

Of the 89 dogs rescued that day by Looney and five other guardsmen, including staff sergeant Mike Sullivan, it was the last team, Chappel’s, that they remember most.

When Sullivan stepped off the HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter onto the storm-ravaged Eagle Summit, after spotting a half-buried sled, he expected the worst.

But as he approached the scene, he heard a faint groan and then a yelp come from under his feet.

Relief poured over him, he said.

“I knew then that at least some of those dogs were alive,” said Sullivan.

As it turned out, all the burrowed dogs were alive and, remarkably, in good health.

“I thought the dogs would be frozen solid,” Sullivan said.

“We just started digging them out and we couldn’t believe it, the whole team was OK. The resilience of these animals is just amazing.”

Besides the 89 dogs, the six members of the 210th Rescue Squadron took Quest rookies Yuka Honda, Kiara Adams, Phil Joy, Saul Turner, veteran Jennifer Cochrane and Quest 300 musher Jodi Rozmyn to safety that day in five trips from the mountain to the Mile 101 dog drop.

Race vets and officials were waiting there to take over.

During the rescue, the helicopter was accompanied by a HC-130 Hercules tanker equipped with infrared sensors for navigational aid and to refuel the smaller aircraft.

“When we got our first visual (of the scene on the summit), the mushers and dogs were pretty much hunkered down,” said Sullivan, who joined the guard in 2003, after a stint in the air force.

“We were just thinking ‘let’s get everybody out of here.’

“Most of them were real glad to see us, even the dogs.”

Loading the dogs into the aircraft one by one, some of which were handed off through the window, was exhausting for all involved, but it felt like the animals knew they would be better off and offered little struggle, added Sullivan.

On the last flight to Mile 101, 25 dogs were packed into the helicopter with one brave pooch coming to rest for the ride on the centre consol between the pilots.

Sullivan was in Fairbanks from Anchorage for manoeuvres last week and was joined by fellow Quest-team rescuers Maj. Bill Kupchin and Lt.-Col. Looney.

Staff Sgts. Dave Torrance, Andrew Marron and Dave Shuman, who were also on the rescue mission, could not attend the barbeque.

None of the mushers who had been whisked off the mountain were at the impromptu gathering, but e-mailed messages of thanks were read, and Quest executive director Julie Fougeron, along with a couple of board members, presented the rescuers with framed photos from the event.

“The dog part of this mission was unique,” said Looney, who flew the helicopter along with Kupchin.

“But we are in the rescue business. We’ve never done a major rescue for the Quest or Iditarod, but the procedures are pretty much the same.”

Though the rescue effort was well co-ordinated and ran smoothly, there were some communication issues, said Looney.

“Any time there is such a long line of information flow, something’s bound to get buggered up,” he said.

“We knew there were people and dogs on the mountain, that they had been up there for 24 hours and we also knew that the weather was really, really bad.”

When Looney approached Eagle Summit in the chopper from Mile 101 for the first time, he said that visibility was less than a 500 metres and the wind was blowing at 50 knots. That’s a hurricane-force wind capable of ripping a roof off a house.

After circling a few times, Looney found a precarious spot to land on the rocky hillside. The mushers were located and told to gather their dogs and possessions if they wanted a ride off the mountain.

“Nobody was forced to go,” said Looney. “But after spending a night in that storm, I don’t think it was a tough choice for anyone.”

“This was the quintessential Alaskan rescue mission,” added Kupchin.

As for Hoss and the other dogs that were lifted off, none had any serious injuries besides being a little cold and hungry.

In fact, six of the dogs on Chappel’s team went on to run the Iditarod with Zirkle just a few weeks later. Two of them made the finish line in Nome, said Zirkle, who won the Quest in 2000.

Though Zirkle’s dogs were stranded on the mountain without a musher, her biggest concern was making sure Chappel was OK.

“I had a feeling that my dogs would be all right,” she said Thursday. “Of course, that didn’t stop me from worrying. I think our saving grace was that we run the dogs without necklines, which prevented them from strangling.

“I certainly don’t blame Randy for (losing the team), I think it could have happened to anyone.”

As a result of the events that happened on Eagle Summit this year, the Quest is considering placing permanent tripod markers on the mountain to help mushers find the trail in whiteout conditions.