By Barney Lerten, Hat tip: Ernie Coffman
BURNS, Ore -- A Eugene couple became trapped on a narrow ledge high in the air on a hike in the Steens Mountains late Friday -- but fortunately in a spot with good cellphone coverage, leading to their call for help and a rescue by Oregon Army National Guard helicopter Saturday morning.
An Oregon Guard HH-60M Blackhawk crew from Charlie Company, 7-158 Aviation was dispatched from the Army Aviation Support Facility #1 in Salem to help the Harney County Sheriff's Office rescue the stranded hiker. The sheriff's office got a call around 7:45 from Daniel Mincon, 26, of Eugene and wife Elizabeth, 25, letting dispatchers know of their predicament in the Big Indian Gorge area.
They were unhurt, but faced freezing overnight temperatures -- and for quite a while were stuck in a spot so narrow, they could not sit down, nor access their backpacks, said Matt Fine, Harney County Search and Rescue coordinator.
With impending darkness, the Guard helicopter crew was forced to wait until first light to launch their aircraft Early Saturday, they were able to help ground rescuers, including a Malheur County technical climbing team that assembled to help in the rescue operations.
According to Fine, the pair was on a ledge about 75 to 100 feet above the ground, but the ridge where the hikers were stranded is surrounded on both sides by a steep drop of thousands of feet. The ledge itself was so narrow, the hikers could barely sit down.
"They had planned to cut over to the top of Wild Horse Lake, but didn't quite make it before darkness fell," Fine said.
Fine said the pair eventually were able to move to a spot where they could sit and access their backpacks, allowing them to cover up with sleeping bags and also get to their food and water.
"It was such treacherous footing where they are at, they couldn't go forward or back" without taking a big risk, Fine said. "They saw us in the area, knew we were going to be able to get them out, it was just a question of when or how."
The Blackhawk helicopter crew was able to rescue the couple around 10:30 a.m., first lowering a man to hoist one hiker up, then the other. "They were extremely grateful to the helicopter crew for pulling them off the ledge," Fine said.
The Rescue Ropes Team, which had planned to scale the ridge to assist in the effort was not needed, as the helicopter arrived on scene in time.
"The (rescue) effort utilized various resources to extract these people from a life-threatening situation," Fine added. "This could have turned out pretty bad."
Fine said despite the risks involved, "All the good things happened -- the weather cooperated, the helicopter was able to practically stand in space" to conduct the rescue,
The Oregon Army National Guard aviation unit utilizes the state's newest asset, the HH-60 "Mike" model Blackhawk helicopter, which is outfitted with the latest technology and rescue equipment, said Oregon Military Department Public Affairs Officer Capt. Stephen Bomar. The Oregon Army National Guard currently has nine such aircraft, Bomar added.
"Our highly trained aviation crews continue to assist first responders and are very well trained for exactly this sort of incident," he said. "This training continues to help keep the citizens of Oregon safe."