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Alaska ranger recounts hanging from rope above crashed plane

August 9, 2018

This Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, photo provided by the National Park Service shows a sightseeing plane that crashed Saturday on a mountain ridge near the top of Denali, North America's tallest peak. Officials at Alaska's Denali National Park say they're working to determine if and when they can start trying to recover the bodies of several people killed in the plane crash. (National Park Service via AP)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A National Park Service mountain ranger didn’t dare unhook a rope connecting him to a hovering helicopter as he stood on the nose of a wrecked airplane on a mountainside in Alaska’s Denali National Park.

The sightseeing plane, with five people inside, crashed on a vertical crevasse. The ice may have pulled away from the mountainside, with snow piled up in the gap, creating what climbers call a false floor.

“When you’re standing right next to the airplane, you don’t know if that snow below your feet is 2 inches thick or 10 feet thick,” ranger Chris Erickson said in a phone interview Wednesday.

A helicopter pilot fought strong wind to keep the rope nearly taught as Erickson spent about five minutes at the wreckage Monday. He found no survivors from the flight carrying Polish tourists that crashed on the side of a near-vertical mountain Saturday night.

The operation to reach the crash site not far from Denali, North America’s highest peak, was stymied by poor weather. The pilot had made satellite calls, but searchers couldn’t get there for a day and a half.

Rescues at Denali and some other national parks require a helicopter crew to look for the closest place to safely land, connect a line to a rescuer and fly with the rescuer hanging from a rope.

Erickson, a 37-year-old working his 11th climbing season at the park, was lifted about 4,000 feet (1220 meters) and hauled 2 miles (3 kilometers) to the wreckage.

He had time to lean inside the plane, brush away snow and confirm that four people had perished. The fifth, he said, likely was also inside.

Just five minutes later, clouds moved in rapidly, and the helicopter pilot warned it was time to leave.

The flight operated by K2 Aviation had taken off Saturday evening with pilot Craig Layson and four passengers from Poland for a one-hour tour of Kahiltna Glacier, the jumping-off point for climbers attempting to scale Denali. The passengers’ names have not been released.

The plane crashed near the top of 10,900-foot (3,300-meter) Thunder Mountain, a knife-edge ridge above Kahiltna Glacier.

A photo of the crash shows the airplane angled upward in snow on the steep mountainside. Erickson said it appeared to be in a depression at the top of a vertical crevasse and possibly on an ice overhang not supported by rock.

Layson used a satellite phone to call the company’s office right after the crash and made a second call about an hour later. He reported injured passengers but the connection dropped before he could give details.

Erickson said he was part of a crew that tried to reach the crash site Saturday night but “there were clouds right on the ridge making it impossible to get to.”

Weather on Sunday was equally foul. The clouds broke up Monday morning, allowing helicopter pilot Andy Hermansky, Erickson and another rescuer to set out.

Erickson got on the rope, then put his life in the hands of the pilot.

“The wind was challenging for him,” Erickson said of Hermansky. “It’s going to be difficult for me to describe how much expertise is required on Andy’s part to perform this maneuver. For the most part, we kind of think of ourselves as dopes on a rope. The pilot is doing all the work.”

Transporting a person outside the copter at that elevation is a “very challenging maneuver,” Erickson said.

“You’ve got white clouds, white glacier, very little vertical reference, because he’s above the ridgetop at that point,” he said.

Erickson got into place on the nose of the airplane as Hermansky hovered, keeping little slack in the line in case the snow gave way. He confirmed the deaths and then they had to leave because of clouds.

Authorities have said they are trying to determine if and when they can start trying to recover the bodies.

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