As a snowy chute on the side of Kings Peak came into view through Sgt. 1st Class Zach Kesler’s night vision goggles, he thought, “Wow, I’m about to be on that hill with those guys.”
“What am I about to see?” he remembered wondering, unsure of the condition of one of the men on the mountain.
He gathered his medical and rescue gear and descended from a Black Hawk helicopter to help a 22-year-old hiker who had fallen 200 yards down a steep chute in the Uinta Mountains about 10 p.m. on Wednesday night.
“This guy‘s in a bad spot,” Kesler told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. “He’s hurting pretty bad.”
And he was cold, with 8 inches of snow on the slope, according to the Summit County Sheriff’s Office’s Lt. Andrew Wright.
The hiker was wrapped in coats before Kesler got to him. Kesler administered medical aid and then hoisted him into the hovering helicopter, said the Utah National Guard’s Lt. Col. Rick Smith.
The National Guard got the injured hiker to a medical helicopter, which took him to a hospital. He was in critical condition after injuring his head and chest in the fall, according to officials.
Department of Public Safety Chief Pilot Luke Bowman recorded the rescue from his helicopter, which was grounded because the agency is not certified to hoist people at night. So Bowman called in the National Guard to perform the rescue under a dark sky with only a sliver of a moon.
“It was very dark outside,” Smith said. “Almost no moonlight or starlight.”
The 11,500-foot elevation also made the rescue difficult; helicopters have less power at high elevations, Smith said.
“We‘re very proud of their expertise in a very complex and difficult rescue last night, with some risks to their own persons in helping this hiker who was injured,” said Utah National Guard Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton.
The two Utah County men had hiked and camped at Dollar Lake on Tuesday night and planned to summit King’s Peak on Wednesday night. But, too tired to make it to the peak, the two opted to take a shortcut down, through Anderson Pass.
At about 6 p.m., one of the hikers heard his companion fall down the steep chute; he called 911 about an hour later to report that the companion was stuck.
The injured hiker’s condition is improving, officials said Thursday, and he is expected to survive.