NOTE: This a corrected version of the original story.
What if a well-known Nordic skier who once raced for Alaska Pacific University took a serious, bone-breaking fall while skiing a deadly peak in the Chugach Mountains, was hoisted to safety after a difficult effort by the fabled 212th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard, and the story somehow never made the news only 15 miles away in Anchorage?
Well, in this day and age, it wouldn’t be long before the tale popped up on Facebook. Thus it appeared three days after the fact on a “get well” page for friends of retired one-time national class skier Katie Ronsse Libby, now a physical therapist in the state’s largest city. She is reported to be recovering and doing well after a nasty, nasty fall down the North Couloir on 4,880-foot Ptarmigan Peak.
It was in this same col that two University of Alaska Anchorage climbing students fell to their deaths in a 1997 accident that left 10 others injured, several seriously. It was the worst accident in Chugach State Park history. An independent investigation later blamed university mismanagement. In the wake of the mishap, the university paid $1 million to settle death claims and eliminated what had been a popular mountaineering program at the school.
Dangers in the North Col are largely dependent on snow conditions. The UAA accident happened in June when the snow was rock hard, and it was near impossible to arrest the descent of a sliding climber. The North Col has been skied in good snow conditions, and the indications are that Ronsse’s fall there was mainly due to bad luck.
There appears to be no official report on what happened.
Chugach State Park chief ranger Matt Wedeking on Wednesday confirmed there had been a rescue operation performed on Ptarmigan around 6:30 p.m. March 18, but there were no rangers on duty at the time. Alaska State Troopers, the agency charged with coordinating search and rescue operations in the 49th state, took charge, and a ranger was called up on standby in case needed. Wedeking said in an email that he was still waiting for a report from troopers on what happened.
So, too, trooper spokeswoman Meghan Peters who said via email Friday, a full week after the event, that she had “called to check about the Ptarmigan Peak here near Anchorage. It doesn’t appear a SAR (Search and Rescue) has been reported to us yet. If I hear otherwise I will let you know.”
There was, however, a pretty vivid account of what happened posted on Facebook. The author is unknown. The post — which includes photos of Ronsse in the hospital, photos from on Ptarmigan Peak, and photos of a Black Hawk hovering over Powerline Pass near the peak — says Ronsse and husband Justin Libby climbed up the north side of Ptarmigan hoping to “make some turns and try out her (Ronsse’s) new ski bindings on the champagne powder.”
Some unusually light March snow had just fallen on Anchorage at the time.
The skiing went well for Libby, according to the post, but Ronsse got in “no more than three turns and for some reason pre-ejected out of her leashed bindings which made it difficult to stay upright. Luckily, Justin was able to intercept Katie’s fall and keep her from taking a really long ride over more exposed terrain. Katie’s leg was twisted up and they needed help getting out without further damaging the leg.
“Luckily, S Couloir has 4G (cell phone service) and they were able to start making calls for help immediately. Life Med’s helicopter was the first first-responder but it became apparent that a rescue on a 45-degree slope in a couloir was beyond their capabilities.”
(Some refer to the Ptarmigan’s North Col as the S Couloir because of the S-shaped bends from top to bottom.)
Thus the call went out to the pilots and pararescue men of the 212th at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the 210th Rescue Squad being at the time on a training mission on the Arctic sea ice north of Barrow. Trained to recover downed U.S. pilots in any terrain under combat conditions, the men commonly called simply PJs are recognized as among the best, if not the best, in the world at SAR.
According to the Facebook post “the first of four heli trips dropped a ‘ground team’ of two PJs to work with Katie, Justin and Paige Brady on the slope.”
Brady is another well known local skier, and judging by the photos on the Facebook post and the terrain on the north side of Ptarmigan. The insertion was made by a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter from Fort Richardson in Fairbanks because the Air Guard Pavehawks usually used in such mission was also on the North Slope. The Black Hawk pilot was able to find a place he drop the PJs, but it was not suitable for a pickup.
“Katie was loaded into a litter (but) they had to belay her part way down the mountain in the litter to a better ‘lift-off’ spot,” the post continues. “Weather was moving in fast and during one of the helicopter trips (it had to return to base a couple of times to refuel)…there was a strong chance that the helicopter was going to have to abort the mission.
“Luckily, approximately seven hours after the accident, Katie was air lifted and taken to the Providence (Medical Center) emergency room.”
Everyone who spends time adventuring in Chugach State Park, no matter how close to the city, should take note of the first seven words in that sentence. Seven hours to complete a rescue in the half-million-acre wilderness park is not unusual, especially in high angle terrain.
And sometimes weather makes immediate rescue impossible. Everyone should be accordingly equipped to survive a night out.
For Ronsse, according to the FB post, it would appear things turned out as well as could be hoped for in the case of someone who badly fractured her leg just below the knee. The damage was severe enough that she underwent two surgeries and was reportedly scheduled for more.
The only question left is a simple one: If the PJs performs a rescue and officialdom fails to notice, are the PJs still credited with a “save”?
They certainly deserve it. As Ronsse learned, the 210th is the best sight you can hope to see in the sky if you get in serious trouble in the Alaska back country, although the unit doesn’t always get the recognition, and along with that the appreciation, it deserves.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected on March 26 to reflect that “S Couloir” referred to in the Facebook post was not the South Couloir on Ptarmigan Peak, but a reference to the S-shaped North Couloir.