Hard to believe were almost into February! In a little more than 3 short months our park will be open to receive visitors which is usually around mid-May or whenever the Mt Washington Cog RR or Auto Road are ready to operate to the summit. On Thursday, weather was about as nice as it can get on Mt Washington in January with light winds and temps in the high teens. Bill Hover, Radio Technician with NH State Police rode up with us to perform some maintenance on our state’s radios.
While de-icing antennas on roof of Yankee we could hear the chop-chop-chop sound of a rapidly approaching helicopter. I ran downstairs to grab my camera only to catch a glimpse of the NH National Guard Helicopter fly around the south side of the summit.
I chased the chopper with my camera around the summit and had the unique thrill and honor to watch my heroes practice a coupe touch & go landings.
The NHNG 238th Medical Evacuation Company was taking advantage of the unusually nice weather conditions to practice some close mountain maneuvers at 6,000′. In my 30 years working for Mt Washington Park and as a volunteer with AVSAR our Search and Rescue (SAR) teams have worked closely with NH National Guard SAR resources on many high profile SAR missions. Even got to ride inside a couple times where the Guard’s Black Hawk helicopter had deposited SAR teams at top of mountains so we could more efficiently search downhill like a ski patrol on end-of-day trail sweep. In my earlier SAR days, the Guard flew Huey Helicopters like the ones seen on most Vietnam War movies. Now they have Black Hawk helicopters which are much more powerful with amazing lifting and hoisting capabilities.
Upgrading to the Black Hawk helicopters has allowed the Guard to pull off successful rescues in the mountains that would not have been possible with a Huey.
Now, I just want to make sure, dear reader, that you know the NH National Guard’s Black Hawks are not always circling the mountains waiting to rescue all 911 hiker calls for help. There are many complex issues that need to be sorted before you can get a Black Hawk over your head to pluck you from whatever unfortunate twist of fate that may have caused you, your partner or family member from home to pull the 911 trigger.
First off, in the high mountains, your call for help has to go to the correct state and State Public Safety Dispatch office. It may sound strange but it has happened where a hiker makes a 911 call for assistance from say Valley Way trail on Mt Madison, that call could go to a dispatch center in Lewiston, Maine and they can’t find Valley Way Avenue on their town map. So be prepared to give the dispatcher some detailed location clues and landmarks to help patch your call to the correct emergency response agency.
In the case of New Hampshire, any inland woods and waters calls for assistance (1) should go to our NH Fish & Game Department (NHF&G). Their Conservation Officers then decide what assets/resources are needed to get you off the mountain in the most efficient way. The use of a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter is an exception and not the rule in their bag of SAR resources. In order to activate the Guard a NHF&G senior officers needs to determine if the nature of the call is: life or limb threatening, a real risk of ground based rescuer injury possible which can be minimized with an air evac, National Guard needs to have a helicopter & crew available, the Guard pilot has final say on go/no go as he/she considers weather, remaining daylight, location, fuel needs, etc.
To activate the NH National Guard to assist with an in-state emergency is usually a decision made by the Governor of NH. However, not every SAR request for Guard assistance needs the Governor’s personal OK before launching. The Governor trusts his Fish & Game, National Guard and Public Safety leaders to make the appropriate decisions with the Governor’s office always in the loop. So if a NH Guard Helicopter does hover over your head and winch you up to safety a short time after breaking your legs from a fall be aware that that mechanical marvel, that Angel of Hope, just doesn’t magically appear to rescue you ahead of the impending storm.
Only from repeated professional trainings, diligent maintenance, committed personnel to the mission and inter-agency cooperation and communication (2) has that Black Hawk helicopter appeared over your head to winch you up to safety. Most of the time your sprained ankle or twisted knee will have to wait for NH Fish & Game CO’s assisted by SAR volunteers, and many times along with our very own NH Parks & Rec ranger staff to hike to your location to conduct a litter evacuation. So be safe out there and stay focused. Enjoying the great outdoors (we are so lucky to have close-by in New Hampshire) comes with a user responsibly best summed up by HikeSafe.
- NH Fish & Game is the lead state agency in all backcountry emergency response except for the Cutler River Drainage on Mt Washington (Tuckerman & Huntington Ravines) where the lead SAR agency is the USFS Snow Rangers during winter season.
- For more information on the Mission of the NH National Guard please visit their website at https://www.nh.ngb.army.mil/