Evergreens Denali Lama rescues climbers

PHOTO/Courtesy National Park Service
The number of Christmas cards Jim Hood and Ray Touzeau receive every year closely corresponds with the number of climbers they have helped rescue off Mount McKinley.

The humble helicopter heroes each have a mantelful.

Hood is the pilot and Touzeau is the mechanic for Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska Inc.s high-altitude mountain rescue helicopter based in Talkeetna.

The duo have been a team at Denali National Park and Preserve for the past several years.

Dubbed the Denali Lama by Hood a decade ago, the French-made Aerospaciale helicopter has plucked many stricken mountaineers off North Americas highest peak.

Hood, 42, has been flying the Lama since 1991 and has logged about 4,000 hours in the Alaska Range.

Over the years, Hood, relief pilot Francisco Orlaineta and Touzeau, along with National Park Service rangers and rescue volunteers have been credited with saving dozens of lives.

Weve alleviated a lot of pain and suffering, Hood said from his home in Alpine, Wyo., where he flies rescue helicopters in the winter.

One of Hoods most memorable rescues in Alaska came years ago. It involved a climber who suffered severe frostbite and likely would have died without the Lama.

The former mountaineer stays in touch with Hood more than just at Christmas.

He lost his feet, but he still ballroom dances, Hood said.

Not all climbers are as fortunate.

Too often, the helicopter has been used to remove the bodies of climbers from the 20,320-foot mountain, where 31 people have lost their lives since 1990.

Hood holds two records for high-altitude rescue on Mount McKinley, one at 19,700 feet using a remote control grappling device on a long line below the helicopter that was used to grab a climber and lower him to safety. The other record was at 18,800 feet, where a rescuer was attached to the line to haul a climber off the mountain.

The National Park Service pays Evergreen about $300,000 a year to provide the helicopter and three-member crew at Denali National Park and Preserve.

The helicopter is used at the height of the climbing season, from mid-April through mid-July.

About 1,100 climbers attempt Mount McKinley annually, but the success rate to the summit is a little better than half, according to the Park Service.

Climbers on Mount McKinley and nearby Mount Foraker are charged a special-use fee of $150 per climber. The money is used to offset costs related to rescues, such as climber education programs and a high-altitude ranger station.

But many climbers balk at the user fee, and some oppose the use of the Lama rescue helicopter.

In a letter to the National Park Service, American Alpine Club President James Frush said the Lama helicopter should be cut out to contain the costs associated with mountain rescues in the Alaska Range.

The Lama definitely has allowed some rescues to be conducted that otherwise would not have been possible, and some people who survived may have died without it, Frush wrote.

But the Lama is used as a sort of safety net by some climbers, who might not attempt the mountain if the helicopter were not there, Frush wrote.

Beyond saving money, reducing the rescue infrastructure in the park also sends a powerful message to climbers, particularly foreign mountaineers, that rescue services are no longer near at hand, Frush wrote.

Hood strongly disagrees.

Hard-core climbers dont want to pay until they are the ones up there that need some help, Hood said.

The Lama is not cheap, Hood said. Without it, the national park would fill up with dead bodies.

Evergreen owns three of the 33 Lamas that are in service in the United States. Two are used in the Lower 48.

Mechanic Touzeau, 31, said the Lama is the only civilian helicopter to have oxygen bottles on board.

The helicopters were produced through the 1960s and early 1970s. They weigh a wispy 2,600 pounds and produce nearly 900 horsepower from a single turbine engine.

The high power-to-weight ratio allows the helicopter to climb at more than 1,700 feet a minute at altitude, said Touzeau, who works at Evergreens corporate headquarters in McMinnville, Ore. during the winter.

The helicopter holds altitude records at more than 42,000 feet. The Lama also holds the auto-rotation record for a helicopter, where one dropped safely more than 2 miles without power.

11/04/2001 - 8:00pm