It is late May in Alaska, the height of the climbing season in the world's most treacherous mountain range. Three Englishmen are clawing their way up the sheer West Rib of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. During a break in the weather, they attempt a mad dash for the summit 4,000 feet above them. Twelve miles away, clinging to a vertical wall of ice, two experienced American climbers also see the break in the clouds as their chance to reach the summit of Thunder Mountain, the third highest in the Alaska Range. But, as every mountain guide preaches, good weather is the most dangerous: it always goes bad when you least expect it. And what neither climbing party knows is that two weather fronts are about to collide above their heads to create one of the most hellacious storms Alaska has ever seen. Within twelve hours the three Englishmen are trapped at 19,000 feet on Denali in whiteout conditions, hypoxic and dehydrated, their radio frozen, while one of the Americans has narrowly escaped death in a fall and is now pinned to a narrow ledge, depending on his wounded partner to reach the help that will save his life. With this, the mountain foot- patrols and flight crews of the U.S. Air Force's 210th Pararescue Squadron are mobilized and "The Rescue Season" begins. Because of their low profile, the Air Force's parajumpers, or PJs, are the Special Forces you've never heard of. Now their remarkable achievements are revealed for the first time in Bob Drury's thrilling account of one season in the life of Alaska's 210th Pararescue Squadron, the only PJ team in the world devoted to civilian rescues. The lives of countless men and women -- mountaineers trapped on theimmense 20,320-feet Denali massif, fishermen adrift in the chaos of the Bering Strait, lost hunters wandering the endless tundra, and even Navy SEALs freezing to death on a glacier the size of Rhode Island -- are the responsibility of this uncommonly trained, close-knit unit of thirty citizen-soldiers. A spot on the 210th is a coveted assignment, for PJs, like civilians, appreciate the lure of Alaska, a territory that defies overstatement. But they are also fluent with its risks. In 1991, veteran PJ Mike Wayt helped lower a trapped Korean mountaineer down one of Denali's sheer slopes above 14,000 feet. The climber lost both hands to frostbite; Mike Wayt nearly died, unintentionally setting a new standard for heroism for the squad. Now they must find five stranded climbers in the midst of a storm that threatens everyone on the mountain. "The Rescue Season" is a true tale of the perilous beauty of nature and the rousing community of men who live in the grandest heroic tradition: they risk themselves in unimaginable ways on behalf of strangers.
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Chapter One: Alaska Envy
It is my duty to save lives and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform this duty quickly and efficiently, placing it before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, that others may live.
-- The Pararescueman's Code
The origins of Alaskan rescue contain the simplicity and obscurity of the frontier itself. The high north's harsh winters are more than metaphor, and each community's values are forged by their dark, brutal nature. This insidious essence seeps into the soul, and from downtown Anchorage to the smallest Inupiaq village the dual perils of isolation and loneliness are acknowledged realities. A professional rescuer in Alaska faces a complex web of small judgments and compromises that, like a spider's threads, are woven in unexpected combinations. A flat summer sea can turn into a cauldron within minutes. An alpine storm will strand a climber mere yards from his tent.
Or, as U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Mike Wayt now considers on this Friday morning, May 21, some British idiot traversing one of Denali's fickle flanks will wander away from his climbing partners and never be heard from again.
As a member of the Alaska Air Guard's 210th Pararescue Team, Mike Wayt does not have to be involved in a rescue to feel his stomach churn each time one of his crewmates heads out from headquarters, especially when the rescue involves battling Denali. In reflective moments, the men of the 210th often think of themselves as a sort of modern-day equivalent of Mallory's Arthurian knights, a collective embodiment of the warrior spirit at its best and brightest, contributing to the quality of their fellow human beings in time of peace. These knights consider Denali their fiercest dragon -- unique, immense, deceiving, and never less than potentially fatal even to those who know it best. Last night, for instance, the thirty-odd members of Wayt's pararescue team each felt as if he was a member of Pete Katinszky's crew as the pilot vectored the mountain searching for Antony Hollingshead and Nigel Vardy. They monitored the military rescue frequencies or called into headquarters for hourly updates. And when they heard the news that the mountain ranger Daryl Miller and the Lama pilot Jim Hood had finally recovered the Brits, a silent cheer rose from every member of the squadron no matter where he was.
Now, this morning, the sky above Mike Wayt is feathered with high-filling cirrus as he follows the contrail of another C-130 heading back into the Alaska Range in search of the third British climber, an auto mechanic from Staffordshire named Steve Ball. Mike has been on the horn to The Section, as the parajumpers refer to their Anchorage headquarters, and knows his teammate and friend Technical Sergeant Mark Glatt is a member of the Herc's crew. He hopes Glatt will be the first to spot the Brit.
Mike looks across his backyard to the north, across the coastal flats, where pearl gray clouds, billowing and ominous, are frosting the ripsaw crests of the Chugach Range. Although it is nearly June, a season of twenty-hour days and bruised-colored nights, spring snow in the Chugach is far from unusual. Mike turns to his thirteen-year-old daughter and smiles. Stephanie Wayt stands indolently, hands on hips, pondering the storm battering the lofty minarets five miles away. A limp volleyball net lies in the wet grass at her feet.
No worries, Steph, Mike says in what he hopes is his most reassuring tone. The mountains will trap those clouds.
Like most children of the arctic, Stephanie is something of an expert at tracking the path of a squall from its birth far out over the Aleutian Islands to the moment it begins tacking up the Gulf of Alaska like a dark, menacing pirate fleet. She can usually guess from the height of the vaulting cumulonimbi -- the towering Qs -- which storms will ricochet off the mountain chain and bounce back into the spruce-covered foothills that sheathe the Wayt's neighborhood, and which ones will wring themselves out on the corrugated peaks. As she and her dad gaze solemnly across the watershed that holds the city of Anchorage, a crenellated sugar bowl carved by the confluence of the Knik and Matanuska Glaciers some 10,000 years ago, Stephanie knows intuitively that this storm will play itself out in the Chugach. Still, she loves her father, so she smiles brightly and mimes an exaggerated gesture of relief before turning to plant the poles for the volleyball net.
Mike holds a steady gaze on his daughter. No longer his gangly colt, all arms and legs and clomping feet, she is already nearly as tall as her mother, and shafts of sunlight reflect off her long buttermilk hair. In this trick of light and shadows Mike sees instead of a little girl a young woman with the bearing of an arctic wolf. In contrast to her father, with his lank black hair and arched Asian cheekbones, Stephanie is graced with her mother's pert nose, and the merest trace of her Japanese grandmother's delicate, almond-shaped eyes. She carries herself in a manner Mike, the only Japanese-American parajumper in the U.S. Air Force, would deem regal.
Mike keeps his eyes upon her as he sidles toward his backyard barbecue grill, unable to shake the feeling that his pararescue team is in for a long couple of days.
Mike Wayt likes to joke that he was born with a silver rip cord in his mouth. His father, Chief Master Sergeant Ron Wayt, led a nomadic existence as an Air Force aerial photographer who flew spy missions over Russia, snapping pictures of Soviet nuclear silos from the backseat of an F-104, and his three sons were reared on air bases up and down the Pacific Coast. As perennial outsiders, the Wayt brothers were acutely aware of the arcane, often baffling prejudices toward Japanese in the wake of World War II, as well as the unforeseen manner in which these prejudices can complicate life. All three learned to fistfight at an early age.
Mike was the youngest, and something of a jock. He was also smart enough to anticipate the limited career opportunities for a 140-pound Japanese-American tailback. Surprising no one who knew him, he enlisted in the Air Force immediately after graduating from high school. Mike's character, after all, had been hammered on the anvil of military tradition, and as early as basic training his drill instructors had pegged him as a lifer. He adapted smoothly to the daily grind and rigors of service life. What he loved best about it was being outside. For as long as Mike could remember, he was enthralled by the outdoors.
When Mike wasn't playing sports, he'd spent much of his youth traversing the woods. Depending on where his father was stationed, there'd be boar hunts in northern California, or salmon fishing down on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. If nothing else, there was always a mountain that needed climbing. As a student his favorite courses had been the field trips he took with the Young Adult Conservation Corps, and after basic training he applied for a position as a field instructor at the Air Force's survival school at Fairchild Air Base in Washington State.
He augmented his survival training by passing the three-week parachute course at Army jump school at North Carolina's Fort Bragg, and within two years he'd qualified as both a survival instructor and parachute instructor at Fairchild. Then, after four years of "walking with my dick in the dirt" through the high passes of the Cascades, he'd accepted an invitation from a superior officer to switch "career fields" and enroll in the pararescueman's indoctrination course down in San Antonio, Texas.
Mike knew a little about the PJs. A few had passed through survival school up at Fairchild, and he'd eyeballed them good. Hell, he figured, whatever it is they do, if they can do it, so can I. He wasn't too solid on the specifics. BuFrom Publishers Weekly:
Dubbed the "unknown tip of the military's rescue spear," the pararescue units of the U.S. Air Force handle some of the military's most dangerous missions, from plucking downed pilots out of combat zones to saving mountain climbers stranded on ice-covered peaks. In order to investigate the units' lifestyle, work ethic and techniques, Drury spent the 1999 climbing season with the parajumpers, or PJs, of the 210th Alaska Pararescue Squadron. Here Drury relates several of their hair-raising missions, interspersing his stories with background details about the unit's history, the PJs' rigorous training and thumbnail biographies of the individual members of the squadron. A veteran journalist who is also a contributing editor at GQ, Drury displays a good tactical understanding of alpine rescue methods and convincingly relates the thoughts and motivations of the individual parajumpers. Leaping back and forth between background and anecdote, the book loses its momentum at times, especially at its beginning. However, the pace picks up in the suspenseful last 50 pages, which relate the action-packed rescue of a man dying near the highest peak in North America, Alaska's Mount Denali. Less absorbing than many narrative accounts of quests-gone-wrong, this book will probably be passed over by adventure readers, but it should appeal to those interested in elite military divisions, such as the Navy SEALs or the Green Berets.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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