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Kodiak Responders Help In Unalaska's Recovery Operations On Mount Ballyhoo

Unalaska Department of Public Safety

Two members of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue (KISAR) were flown to Unalaska to help local responders recover the bodies of Karly McDonald, 16, and Kiara Renteria Haist, 18.

The high school students died Thursday on Mount Ballyhoo after a pickup truck went off the road and tumbled 900 feet down a ravine to the shoreline below.

Steven Wielebski and Philip Tschersich are trained in rope rescue and recovery techniques as members of KISAR, a nonprofit volunteer organization.  

KUCB's Laura Kraegel spoke with them Saturday about how they got involved in Unalaska's emergency operation — and how they approached their descent down the mountain.


STEVEN WIELEBSKI: Two nights ago, like at 11 o'clock at night, I got a call from the state SAR coordinator, and he said, "Well, you guys are the closest organized rope team." He had already spoken to the U.S. Coast Guard because they were willing to fly us with a C-130. They had a flight in the morning to go off to Adak, so they were able to put us on that flight and bring us out here. Otherwise, they would have to bring somebody out of Anchorage.

KUCB: You train in a lot of different environments. So coming here, with our cliffs, and particularly with that part of the mountain, what were you facing? How did you approach it?

WIELEBSKI: It was a long way down, and we luckily had brought enough rope that we made it. We talked to the local fire department, and they had some rope. But luckily, we were able to bring enough just for us. The Troopers took us out to the site and we looked down the slope and we built an anchor off of the back of one of the Troopers' vehicles. We were able to get lowered down to the crash site. You just get on the ground and try to utilize all your education and information to try to build something so you can go down there safely.

PHILIP TSCHERSICH: One of the biggest concerns is if you don't have a good anchor, a natural anchor, available. Like in Kodiak, in some areas, there might be three giant spruce trees at the top of the cliff that you can basically use as an anchor to tie your system off to. We brought materials to build what are called dirt anchors. You basically pound steel rods into the ground and network them together, and it's very secure. But you need soil for it. And sometimes, these cliff tops are just rocky and really poor-quality rock. So the fact that we were able to drive a vehicle basically to the cliff top and use the vehicle itself as the anchor — I mean, that was probably half the battle won right there.

Credit Unalaska Department of Public Safety
A member of Kodiak Island Search and Rescue (lower right, in red) is lowered down the ravine on Unalaska's Mount Ballyhoo.

TSCHERSICH: And as Steve said, the other difficulty was simply the distance down-slope. So we had to tie three ropes together end-to-end. One of the slightly difficult parts of dealing with multiple sections of rope is: It becomes a bit of a slow, meticulous, logistical issue to pass the knots through all the systems. But I have to say, other than that, we were extremely fortunate, especially with the availability of a vehicle as an anchor. The fact that there weren't a lot of really abrupt transitions in the ravine. It was a fairly even gradient slope-down. Even though there was a lot of loose rock, luckily the ravine didn't make a bunch of bends left and right. It was a relatively straight shot, so communication worked fairly well. The ropes weren't in danger of rubbing across sharp edges and being cut. We weren't having to deal with a bunch of fresh rock fall coming down and endangering the rescuers. As bad as the situation was, it was pleasantly textbook, I guess I would characterize it.

KUCB: Thank you for your work, and I'm glad to hear it did go as smoothly as it did. I was talking to Interim Police Chief John Lucking about learning from this experience. Fortunately, given how steep so many of our mountains are, we don't have to deal with this all the time. But maybe there are lessons here for us to learn. With your expertise, what do you think the City of Unalaska, the Public Safety department, our responders — what should we be thinking about for the future?

TSCHERSICH: I think we're fortunate to have a number of people in our organization who have a mountaineering or rock climbing background. I don't want to call them rope hobbyists, but they have an interest in learning and staying current on the intricacies of how rope rescue works. They kind of spur the organization to practice those things. I think if Dutch Harbor wanted to develop a volunteer search and rescue group, maybe it could be a subset of one of the existing local or state agencies. And then it's probably helpful to identify a few people in the community who are already interested in backcountry outdoors and maybe have a little bit of climbing background. It's not strictly necessary. The type of rope work we did — I don't want to call it formulaic, but there's a very cookbook-way of setting these things up that you really don't want to deviate from. In the rescue community, these are tried, true — not foolproof, but fool-resistant — systems. And they're really not that difficult to learn. We're not mountaineering experts by any stretch of the imagination. We just train in some pretty specific things, and it's a natural extension of our interests to being with.

KUCB: Is there anything else I should be asking you? Things that would be good to relay to the community at this point, after a trying couple of days?

TSCHERSICH: We'd like to extend our condolences to the community in general. I mean, we're glad we were able to help. But we're sorry it was under the circumstances.

You can read KISAR's account of the recovery operation here

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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