Image Credit: Les Zollbrecht

Big Lake Team Members Help Rescue Fallen Mount Washington Climber

That Sunday morning was one of the busiest days of the year at Big Lake Youth Camp. As the staff worked to clean up from summer camp and transition Big Lake for family camps, Ross von Pohle, facilities manager, received a search and rescue call. Over the winter, Ross and another staff member, Randy Stroud, had been trained and certified in search and rescue — enabling them to receive calls for search and rescue situations in the area.

Although not a climber himself, Ross referred the call to Les Zollbrecht, camp director. “We had a huge list of things to do that day,” said Zollbrecht, “and I'm sitting here like, 'Oh my goodness there is so much to do. But it’s not more important than someone's life that’s stranded up there on the mountain.'”

Zollbrecht said he couldn’t, in good conscience, send someone else. “I have been a member of a vertical rescue team,” he said. “I know that mountain better than anyone on my staff. So the idea, then, was 'What does it mean to be a neighbor?'” With the local sheriff’s approval, Zollbrecht and Kasondra Reel, an emergency room nurse who worked at Big Lake’s offsite rock climbing program, set out for Mount Washington.

“The person was a 17-year-old man. Our first pin that we had, showed that he was on the west ridge of Mount Washington. Our plan was to hike up and be present with him until search and rescue arrived — but we knew we would get there hours ahead of anybody coming in unless they sent a helicopter,” said Zollbrecht.

“We started hiking and we came to this turn where you need to go up the standard north ridge of Mount Washington or continue up to the west ridge, which is where initially he was reported to be. At that point we got an update from the sheriff saying ‘He's actually on the east face,’” continued Zollbrect.

“Now the east face of Washington is a couple thousand vertical feet. It's a massive wall. In 2016, one of our staff members died there. It's a very, very dangerous place — just crumbly, rotten rock,” said Zollbrecht. “It's just horrible. So when the pin said that he was over there on the east face, I kind of thought, ‘Oh man. There's a very low probability that we're going to be able to get to him or do anything substantive, but if we can at least get to him, maybe a helicopter can come to get him.'”

“As we hiked, a Life Flight helicopter landed a couple mountain rescue team members down below us in the meadow,” said Zollbrecht. “But they were so far below us that we were still an hour and a half ahead of them. So we realized we were going to be the first onsite by a long shot.”

As they came to the final chute on the east face, Zollbrecht and the team called out the young man’s name and finally heard a response. The young man said he was still there and stable, and the team scrambled up the difficult terrain to get to him.

“We climbed to the very edge of what we could get to and looked over into this little gully. And there he was, lying on his belly, holding onto the sand underneath him just shaking,” said Zollbrecht. “He was in very bad condition. He was on a ramp that was actively moving and sliding right toward the edge of this 2,000-foot cliff.”

The Big Lake team received a call from the sheriff around this time saying that the National Guard was sending a Black Hawk helicopter to help with the rescue efforts. “Kasondra and I were on this little ramp maybe 20 feet away. We could look down and see him there, clinging to the nothingness of rotten scree — loose sand and rock. The helicopter came in. A Black Hawk is loud and puts out a lot of movement, so as the repelling team member came down out of the helicopter to where we were, rocks started crumbling off this mountain and pelting us all. I became very, very concerned that it was going to literally blow him right off the mountain. All it would have taken is a little movement and he'd be gone. So it came down to us,” said Zollbrecht.

“They tried to get the repeller over to him, but they couldn’t get to him for whatever reason, so they hoisted him back to the helicopter. I was like, ‘We've got to get to him because he's sliding off.’ We knew we could lose him so quickly. So we set up an anchor. Kasondra belays as I go up and over and down into the little gully and grab onto the back of his harness,” shared Zollbrecht. “According to his story, his feet were 2 feet from going over the edge. I pulled him up, clipped into him, then grabbed his whole harness and finally got him into a rope system where he wasn’t going to slide. For the next 20 minutes or so I battled to drag him up the gully and away from the great abyss.”

When they finally got him into a secure place, the Black Hawk helicopter returned with a mountain rescue professional. They landed him on a rock below, and after about 20 minutes of hiking, he joined the Big Lake team and the young man in completing a patient assessment. The young man was safely lifted into the helicopter and taken to the emergency room.

“This young man wouldn’t have lasted much longer due to his injuries,” said Zollbrecht, “and he could have easily slid over the edge.”

For Zollbrecht, these dire circumstances brought to mind a tragedy from the past. “It wasn’t lost on me that this was the very same place where our staff member had gone over back in 2016. And while I couldn’t do anything about that, I saw this young man and thought, ‘I can pull YOU back, though. You’re not going over that edge. We can do something here.’ In that very visceral fight for his life, there was something beautiful.”

According to the young man, he was climbing up the first pitch and a rock broke off, causing him to fall head back 40 feet down. “The fact that he miraculously stopped in this slippery little gully is crazy,” said Zollbrecht. And there were other miracles, too. The young man had landed on his phone, smashing it. It was on low battery as well, yet he managed to make an emergency call from it for rescue.

“I've never been at a point so clearly where I realize that I'm physically pulling someone back from certain death with my hands,” said Zollbrecht. “Afterward, Kasondra and I just kind of stopped in the silence and looked at each other like, ‘None of that should have happened the way that it did.’ I mean, you're standing there just almost looking at it objectively and there are just no words to even process it. Just kind of like, ‘Thank God for the privilege of being able to have the right set of skills and to be in the right place at the right time.’ And to be able to get the right call, and for God to say, ‘Hey, leave your staff and go do this.’”

“Being a good neighbor means that sometimes you have to sacrifice what you want or even need to do for the sake of someone who's in harm's way,” said Zollbrecht. “That's a no-brainer. Of course we're going to show up. That's what being a good neighbor means.”

“Ross and Randy went and got trained so they could be in the loop and receive calls like this — and I think that’s such a huge piece of all this. When the call came through, Ross was slammed with work, building this massive platform for family camp,” said Zollbrecht, “He was crazy busy, but he was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to step into this situation and activate a rescue.’ I so appreciate that initiative and the hard work he had already put into being ready for this kind of call. Kasondra, too. Without any hesitation she just said, ‘Yep, I’ll pack my medical kit, and climbing gear,’ and was ready to go. She took off up a mountain she had never been on with nothing but this huge can-do attitude and took the risk of coming up there with me.”

“I called the young man’s parents and said, ‘Hey, I'd love to swing by and see him at the hospital.’ I had never seen this woman in my life, but as soon as she saw me his mom hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for saving my son's life.' She was just crying and, you know, you can empathize. Imagine if this was your kid, you know?” said Zollbrecht, “It was a near miss on so many levels, but someone showed up in just the right way and at just the right time and pulled their kid back from the cliff.”

Featured in: November/December 2022