Helicopter pilot from Oregon firm helps rescue man off mountain

Helicopter pilot from Oregon firm helps rescue man off mountain
Pilot PJ Hunt made a tricky "toe-in landing" with a helicopter skid touching the ground and the rotor still turning to keep the craft level to let a paramedic from the sheriff's office get out of the helicopter and reach Yearm. (Photo by Kenneth Nolan of Buena Vista, Colo.)

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — PJ Hunt paid Joe Yearm a visit in the hospital this week.

The two men just met Sunday.

Yearm had a broken leg. Hunt had a helicopter.

The helicopter came in handy: Yearm had a broken leg 12,300 feet above sea level on a rocky slope on the side of a craggy Colorado mountain.

'Go and do whatever I could to help out'

When the call from the sheriff came in on the radio aboard his 1989 Eurocopter, Hunt's first thought wasn't that he was going to take part in a rescue that would require him to make a tricky "toe-in landing" with a helicopter skid touching the ground and the rotor still turning to keep the craft level.

He thought he faced the helicopter pilot's equivalent of being pulled over on the way to work.

"Great, who's complaining about me making too much noise or flying too close to their house now?" Hunt recalled thinking.

San Miguel Sheriff's Cmdr. Eric Berg told Hunt there was an active search and rescue operation on the side of 14,159-foot El Diente Peak - and he needed a helicopter.

Hunt, who flies for Heli-Dunn of Phoenix, Ore., got the go-ahead to shift gears from a powerline construction project to help with the rescue.

The powerline project's Ken Clinger of Great Southwestern Construction "made no hesitation in saying to go and do whatever I could to help out," Hunt said.

Hunt flew to Berg's home to pick him up.

"Eric was completely ready with pack, helmet, radio and full rescue gear," Hunt wrote in an account of the incident. "I gave him a brief safety orientation specific to my helicopter and away we went."

'Clouds were billowing over the surrounding peaks'

Yearm was descending 14,159-foot El Diente Peak alone and in the dark late Saturday when he fell 20 feet onto a snowfield.

He spent the night there with a compound fracture just below his knee.

In the morning, Yearm crawled to a slope where two other climbers found him.

One of the climbers, Kenneth Nolan of Buena Vista, Colo., activated a personal locator beacon because the site had no cellphone service.

The beacon sent a signal with a GPS locator to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center, and the center notified San Miguel County. Deputies from San Miguel and Dolores counties organized the search - and got a hold of Hunt and his helicopter.

Berg gave Hunt the sheriff's office radio frequencies and GPS coordinates from the beacon as the two flew towards the mountain.

"As we approached El Diente the winds were significant and clouds were billowing over the surrounding peaks and dropping down in to the valley where the signal was coming from," Hunt recalled.

'We saw two people standing waving and one person laying down'

Hunt flew his initial pass over the area and saw nothing. He turned around and made another pass at a lower elevation and spotted something on a talus slope. Hunt flew closer and closer, and three figures came into view.

"We saw two people standing and waving and one person laying down on the steep rock scree waving one arm," Hunt recalled. "That was a good sight and a great feeling."

Hunt made the tricky "toe-in landing" long enough for Berg, a paramedic, to get off the helicopter and assess the situation.

Now on the ground, Berg fashioned a splint on Yearm's leg with hiking poles and duct tape.

Then Berg and the two uninjured climbers dug a short ledge for a better landing site for Hunt's helicopter. He described it as a "one-skid landing."

"I flew in and placed my left skid right under Joe and Eric's feet, they loaded Joe up and away we flew to Telluride," he said.

Yearm was transferred to an ambulance and taken to Grand Junction, where Hunt visited him in the hospital Tuesday.