CHP helicopter crew makes heroic rescue of hikers lost near Mount Whitney

The Fresno BeeNovember 27, 2013 

Mountains

The northeast side of Mount Whitney

FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO

Thanksgiving came early for two Riverside County men who were rescued from certain death in a High Sierra snowstorm Tuesday by a California Highway Patrol helicopter crew.

The pair, Jim McKeown and David Webb, were without food, water or shelter and trudging through nearly 6 feet of snow when they were pulled into helicopter H-40 at separate locations on the east side of Mount Whitney.

Both men in their 50s were unprepared for the sudden Sierra storm that hit this week; McKeown left his snowshoes in his truck and Webb did not bring a pair, CHP flight officer Andrea Brown said in a Wednesday interview.

McKeown and Webb had planned to meet at Iceberg Lake (elevation 12,642 feet) on Thursday but they never made contact, so McKeown decided to walk to the Boy Scout Lakes area (about 100 feet below Iceberg) to find Webb. As the weather front moved in Sunday, McKeown had a stroke of luck when he managed to get cell phone service -- always dicey in the High Sierra. He called his wife to tell her he had reached Boy Scout Lakes.

The helicopter, piloted by Ty Blasingame and based at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, was called in Tuesday partly because Inyo County Search and Rescue team would never be able to reach the area in time because of the storm. After searching, the crew spotted McKeown's tracks and then McKeown himself in the deep snow. Blasingame was able to land the helicopter and Brown helped McKeown reach it.

McKeown, who had thrown aside his pack and other supplies because he couldn't carry them, was exhausted.

"He collapsed in the back of the helicopter," Brown said. "He had frostbite on his hands and feet."

McKeown was flown to Lone Pine Airport and taken to a hospital.

The helicopter crew then went to Whitney Portal where they spotted Webb's vehicle, but after an extensive search they were running out of daylight and almost ready to give up hope.

"We were thinking he was in his tent, dead," Brown said. But she and Blasingame decided to make one more sweep.

That was when they spotted Webb waving at them in the Clyde Meadow area, between Upper and Lower Boy Scout lakes at 11,142 feet. But he still had to reach the helicopter, which made a perilous "toe-in" landing with only the front of the skids touching the ground as it hovered above a steep slope.

"He took two steps and collapsed, then two steps and collapsed," as he struggled to reach the helicopter, Brown said. Finally he made it, was pulled inside and was also taken to Lone Pine hospital.

"I've been flying 19 years and that was one of the better ones," Brown said of the rescue.

It was very unlikely the men would survive another day. Brown said that even wearing snowshoes, she was sinking to the mid-thigh level in the snow.

She added that it was one of her most dangerous rescue efforts.

"That's about as far as I like to hang myself out," she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6339, jguy@fresnobee.com or @jimguy27 on Twitter.

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