Rescues On Top Of The World
The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES PHOTOS BY DISCOVERY CHANNEL AND GREG HARMS
Ryan Skorecki is a long way from Boulder, Colo., a quaint college town full of adventure-seeking weekend warriors. He’s even a world away from the rugged Chugach Mountains of Southcentral Alaska, where he cut his teeth
But flying search-and-rescue missions on Mount Everest, atop the world in Nepal’s Himalayas, is something altogether different and unique.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. Even though I talked to a lot of people about coming here, nothing anybody mentioned prepared me for this,” Skorecki says in an early episode of a new Discovery Channel series, Everest Rescue. The show follows the chopper pilots who rescue climbers who get caught in the elements and could die without assistance from the air.
“The weather, the altitude – it’s more risky than flying over flat ocean,” says Skorecki, who couldn’t believe what he saw from the steep runway at the airport closest to Everest base camp. “This is a ‘controlled’ place. What are these other spots going to look like?”
Skorecki, 42, is another Lower 48er who found adventure in Alaska too exhilarating to pass up. Shortly after finishing college and earning his wings, Skorecki flocked to the mountains around Girdwood, where he worked as a heli-skiing and firefighting contract pilot.
“I moved to Alaska in 2000 and for four years I was convinced I’d be flying planes in remote Alaska,” Skorecki says from deep in the Southern Hemisphere. He spends part of the year in McMurdo, Antarctica, transporting everything from volcanologists and marine biologists to other scientists on research assignments (he’s taking a break from flying commercially in Alaska while he splits time between Nepal and the South Pole). So the chance to fly in remote locations like those were impossible to pass up.
You’d think Skorecki would consider flying in the thin air around the world’s highest point (Everest’s summit reaches 29,029 feet) as dangerous as it gets. But while you’ll discover that Skorecki respects the Asian environment he performs in, flying in the Last Frontier has its own challenges.
“One of the comforting things about flying in Nepal (compared to Alaska) is, you can be flying around Alaska where you’re the only helicopter within six hours of you, which is the closest (point of) rescue away; that’s a horrifying thought,” Skorecki says. “But you go to Nepal, and yeah you’re remote, but you look down and there are villages everywhere all the way back to base camp.”
That said, the danger in Nepal is unrelenting for these pilots, given the altitude they must navigate in their choppers on the sides of the planet’s tallest natural wonder. Skorecki shared some of his experiences flying around Everest, plus talked about his own rescue from almost certain death during an Alaskan boating trip gone terribly wrong (see sidebar on page 26) in 2008.
Chris Cocoles What the pilots on the show do is pretty intense, but it seems like that’s kind of what you do: a career that’s full of adventure and even danger. Is that who you are?
Ryan Skorecki My friends would laugh if they heard me described like that; I’m definitely not an adrenaline junkie or risk taker. I would say I’m a conservative flier for sure, but the high-altitude stuff was new to me. The flying that I’ve typically done the last nine or 10 years in Alaska with heli-skiing, that’s super fun. It looks like we’re all crazy (as pilots), but we’re actually not [laughs]. And the firefighting (flying) is managed and overseen by government officials who have us under strict parameters. If you ask the companies and bosses I’ve worked for in Alaska, they would tell you that we’re not supposed to take any additional risks.
CC Would you say that flying rescue missions to Mount Everest is the most intense job you’ve ever done?
RS [Pauses] The majority of the flying that I’m doing there is similar to (Antarctica), and we fly at high altitude down here as well, though nothing as close to base camp at Everest. But whether I’m going up at 20,000 feet in the Everest region or 15,000 feet here, we load the machine appropriately, based on the weights that we’re carrying. The helicopter doesn’t perform that much differently if I’m at 15,000 feet here compared to 21,000 feet there.
CC I have so much respect for A) the people who are climbers, and I know you’ve been a climber yourself, and B) the pilots like you who are trying to rescue the ones who get in trouble. But one factor that I’m getting out of this is that you can relate to the climbers since you’ve done a lot in the past. Has that been an advantage for you now?
RS [Laughs] I definitely can say I feel their pain a little bit. I took one trip up Denali in 2009 and that proved to me that I was not a high-altitude mountaineer. The summit of that mountain is 20,000 feet, and that was a humbling experience. I did that with a few friends, and prior to that I still had some aspirations of doing some big peaks around the world, but that experience proved to me that I was not the bad-ass I thought I was. I was up there for (about) a week, and I think about those people at (Everest) base camp who are there for three or four weeks of acclimatizing, and they’re at 17,000 feet. And I think, “Wait a minute: I spent nine days at 17,000 feet on Denali and that just about totaled me.” And all I can think about is about 1,000 people hanging around base camp for a month or more. It’s pretty remarkable.
CC What was the big attraction for you to take on this challenge in the Himalayas?
RS [Laughs] This will sound kind of funny, but I realized after that Denali climb that I wasn’t going to be a high-altitude mountaineer, but I did acknowledge the fact that I love the big mountains. And when the opportunity presented itself where I could actually fly around those mountains in a magic carpet – i.e., this helicopter – instead of doing it the hard way, which I already established that I was not going to be able to do, I thought about it. The long-story-short version is, down here in McMurdo, 1½ miles away (from the U.S. base) is the Kiwi base; we have five helicopters on the U.S. side, and (New Zealand has) one. They keep theirs with us on our pad because we have a hangar and a fuel system. So we interact with the Kiwis every day, and one of their pilots, Jason (Laing), came down here in 2014 and it was my second season here. After meeting him for the first time, he came up to me and said, “Hey, I hear you’re kind of the computer geek.” He asked me to put our base map onto his GPS. So I’m looking at it and I see these waypoints and tracks that are saved from flying around Everest. So, of course, my first question to him is, “Whoa; where did you get this GPS?” It never even occurred to me that it was possible for foreigners to fly over there. So that first put the thought in my mind that, “Oh wow; this was actually possible.”
And then, fast forwarding a couple seasons, the following year (Laing) did not return (to Nepal) because he and (fiancé) Robyn had a baby. But the year after, he did, so I started talking to him again about Nepal. And then the earthquake happened [in April 2015, a massive 7.8 earthquake killed 9,000 and triggered an avalanche on Everest]. So he did a whole bunch of flying for that. All of a sudden I started thinking about Nepal again and I just kept messaging him and asking him about it. So when he returned to McMurdo last year, he said, “Hey, I’ve got a friend over there with a company that is looking for some pilots. Are you still interested?” I was like, “Absolutely!” It piqued my interest at first, but it demonstrated to me that it’s possible for foreigners to fly there. And a little persistence from me in asking him over and over again and I thought, “OK, I’d better.”
CC In one of the early episodes, you were given coordinates from a Nepalese GPS tracking where climbers in distress were located, but those coordinates weren’t visible on your GPS. Are those typical of challenges confronting pilots in that search-and-rescue setting?
RS There are lots of variables and the plan changes incredibly frequently. I’m sure in multiple episodes you’ll see different examples of that. It’s very common there. I mean, I only had one situation that I can recall from last season where I had that GPS confusion, but there are multiple examples of wrong information or plans changing on the fly. That kind of stuff would drive you crazy, and then eventually I started to realize that, “Well, it’s just the way it works over here, and part of my job is accepting there will be unknowns.”
Things will happen that will drive you crazy at first, and on a regular basis I would get someone telling me, “OK: Talk to this group; they’re in this village; you need to go up there and pick up these two people.” And the amount of fuel we’re carrying is a pretty important number, because if they tell me I’m going up to 15,000 feet to pick up two people, I look at the performance chart and figure out that I can take this much weight, assuming the people weigh approximately 80 kilos [176 pounds], and then I base how much fuel to take on how many people. The only fuel that you’re going to have to get back to Kathmandu is what you brought with you from Kathmandu … So when you’re told to go to the village and pick up two people, I’ll confirm, “OK, two people; I’ll be there in 12 minutes. Two people, right?” I’ll be on the phone confirming that it’s two people. And then I get there 10 minutes later and (find out that) it’s five. That’s when I’ll have to say, “I can’t take five people; it’s too much. If you would have told me five people 15 minutes ago, I could have fueled the helicopter. But right now I can’t; I’m sorry.” And that would happen over and over again. It’s very frustrating. But part of the job is accepting that. I remember Jason telling me, more than once, that if I didn’t stop worrying about these certain things, I was going to lose my hair.
CC So it is always about adapting to constant changes in variables and having to change on the fly?
RS Yes and no. In Antarctica, we get some bad weather, but Alaska gets much worse weather than we experience in the summer. But here, the routine is scripted. We have all these scientists who are vying for time in the helicopters, so each day is (scheduled). But you go to Nepal, and the only thing that’s planned is that first takeoff in the morning. The rest of the day just unfolds [laughs]. Another big difference is weather. (In Antarctica) when the weather deteriorates we all stop flying; the airplanes stop, the helicopters stop. You go to Nepal, and what happens is, the helicopters and airplanes are all flying, and when the weather gets bad, the airplanes stop flying and the helicopters get really busy. One example why is Lukla (Airport, the base hub for the Everest pilots), that runway is an extreme slope and terminates into a mountainside, and pilots have to be very conservative. And every afternoon like clockwork, the wind is going to start blowing, and the wind is going to change or the cloud cover is going to come down. When either one of those things happen, the airplanes stop.
CC Tell me about your experiences in Alaska and how you got there. You went to school at CU (University of Colorado) in Boulder, which has an active outdoor sports community. Did that motivate you to experience some of Alaska’s wide-open spaces?
RS When I was young, like everyone else I was going to be an astronaut, and I wear glasses. I thought my path was going to be in the military, and I talked to recruiters out of high school and college who took one look at me and each time I was told, “With eyes like that, you’ll never fly anything without a propeller.” So that’s dashing my hopes of being an astronaut. I decided I’ll fly as a hobby or maybe I’d become a bush pilot in Alaska. I finished school in Colorado, got my airplane wings there and decided if I liked the mountains in Colorado, I’ll really like it in Alaska. So I got in my 1985 Toyota pickup and drove up to Alaska in 2000. And I’ve been there since.
CC What’s Alaska been like for you? Are you now a typical Alaskan outdoorsman?
RS I’m one of those weirdos in Alaska who doesn’t eat meat, so no hunting or fishing for me, but I’m happy to go along with friends. I’ve been on multiple trips where they’ve gone fishing, but I haven’t been on any hunting trips. Most of my trips involve boating, and packrafting is big up there. I love to ski and I worked on the ski patrol up there (around Girdwood).
CC You’ve obviously flown in some of the most spectacular spots in the world, but is there still somewhere on earth you want to experience?
RS Oh man, yeah. Norway, Greenland and Iceland are high up on the list, especially if I can figure out how to fly commercially there. I would just like to visit those places. Coming down (to Antarctica) for the last five seasons, our starting off and ending point is New Zealand, and a few years ago I got my New Zealand license, and somewhere down the road I’d like to fly commercially there. But man, if the planets would align and I can work my way into Norway, Greenland or Iceland, that would be something. ASJ
Editor’s note: New episodes of Everest Rescue can be seen this month on Sunday nights on the Discovery Channel (check your local listings). The season finale is scheduled for Feb. 19. Go to discovery.com/tv-shows/
WHEN THE RESCUER NEEDS RESCUING
Ryan Skorecki’s job is rescuing adventure-seeking adrenaline junkies in harm’s way atop mountains, but he’s had his own brush with death during his time living in Alaska.
On March 16, 2008, Skorecki, three friends and a dog were in a 20-foot johnboat crossing Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula near Homer with the intent of going backcountry skiing on the other side of the bay. But a high wave flooded the vessel, which capsized, sending the four friends and the dog into water a few degrees above the freezing mark.
“I’ve had a few days where I should be dead,” says Skorecki, also referring to some near misses while rock climbing, “and that was like, top of the list.”
With the fear of succumbing to hypothermia while exposed in the chilly water, the group managed to use the hull of the boat as a place to take turns kneeling atop, thereby limiting how often they’d be fully in the water during the harrowing experience.
They were in the water for about three hours before a passing boater noticed debris in the bay and then the foursome and their four-legged companion.
“Incredibly lucky there, and I still can’t believe it,” Skorecki says now. “I still talk to the guy who pulled us out of the water. I call him every year and thank him.”
After being rescued, Skorecki told the Homer News, “I glanced over to shore and thought, ‘We’re dead.’ There was no chance of us swimming to that shore. We were pretty much in the middle of the bay. It’s not that I just thought we were dead; I was certain we were dead.”
Luck was on Skorecki’s side that day: the tide was going out and the wind was pushing the boaters west toward the Homer Spit, a strip of land at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Now that he flies into dangerous places with the intent of helping climbers in need, Skorecki understands how circumstances can turn pleasure into tragedy rapidly.
When looking back on the experience, Skorecki saw the irony and learned a valuable lesson from a conversation he once had with a flying instructor named Rick back in Colorado.
“Whenever we’d go flying he’d put on this vest, and it had all this stuff. I remember thinking, ‘It looks so ridiculous,’” Skorecki says. “But he said, ‘It doesn’t matter what kind of survival gear you have with you in the plane, if you don’t have it on you, then you don’t have it.’ And I kept thinking about it sitting on that upside down boat on Kachemak Bay, and all these planes are flying over us but can’t see us. We had all these flares, and where was it? Underwater in an overturned boat. And I remember what Rick told me.” CC