GYPSUM, Colo. – Early the morning of July 16, an Army UH-60 Black Hawk rescue crew was alerted to a severely injured hiker who had fallen 500 feet down one of Colorado's tallest peaks.
The hiker, a retired astronaut, had broken both his legs and one arm in the fall and needed emergency care fast. But to get to a hospital, the former Navy captain had to rely on the Army to pluck him from the unforgiving terrain.
It was the height of summer, a time when hikers flock to the state's mountain ranges and when operations at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site ramp up.
The site has a dual-hatted role. Primarily, it teaches helicopter crews how to fly and land in high altitudes. It also is a search and rescue outfit with experienced crews that can reach difficult spots where most civilian aircraft cannot.
Each year, full-time Colorado Guardsmen at the site rescue about 20 people – mainly desperate hikers who have fallen or suffered from altitude sickness or a heart attack.
With two pilots and two crew chiefs, the Black Hawk crews will also pick up two rescue technicians, who are civilian volunteers that they train with, on their way out.
After already topping their annual average for saves, 2019 has proven to be a busy year.
"It's nice that we're able to take what we teach, the power management techniques, and apply them on the weekend or during the week when we're making these critical saves," said Lt. Col. Britt Reed, the HAATS commander.
For many, the July 16 mission is one of the recent rescues that stands out. While climbing La Plata Peak, which pierces the sky at over 14,000 feet near Leadville, Jeff Ashby quickly became in need of help from the air.
The day before, Ashby, 65, who had flown to space three times, had just reached the summit of the mountain. During his descent, he lost his footing and slipped, hurtling down the mountainside before large boulders stopped him.
Hours later, a local search and rescue team member managed to navigate to the former astronaut and stayed with him overnight.
At first light, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Pat Gates and his aircrew, along with two rescue technicians, flew out to Ashby's location.
Once overhead, the crew used a hoist to lower the technicians, who prepped Ashby before he was pulled up into the helicopter. The aircraft then landed at a transfer site, where Ashby was taken to the hospital in a civilian medical transport helicopter.
While a collection of emergency responders helped, the HAATS crew had the hoist capability to get Ashby out of danger.
"It's great knowing that you have that kind of impact on somebody," Gates said.
After being released from the hospital, Ashby wrote an email to Gates and the rest of the aircrew, thanking them for their efforts.
"He was very appreciative of everything, for the fact that the Army came to help out a Navy guy," Gates said, smiling. "But, all in all, having a result like that is always the best case."
Gates estimates he has helped with at least five rescues per year since he came to HAATS in 2009. And the total number of missions continues to increase, he said, almost quadrupling compared to when he first started.
Some of them even test the most experienced pilots, like Gates, who serves as the training site's senior standardization instructor pilot.
A hairy rescue he still remembers was in 2015 at Crestone Needle, another mountain over 14,000 feet.
In that one, a hiker also slipped and broke his leg, in addition to other injuries. Since the hiker was stranded in a tight area, the aircrew had to lower a hoist 200 feet as winds kicked up to 25 knots and a thunderstorm loomed.
"That was very interesting," he said. "It required a lot that day to get the [helicopter rescue team] all the way down there to the injured party."
The mission was taxing for the crew because they had to keep the helicopter as still as possible. At that height, Gates said, the hoist can sway about 10 feet on the ground to every 1 foot the aircraft moves.
Pilots may also decide to quickly do a one-wheeled landing, one of which was conducted this summer, if there is enough room that the rotors will not chop into the mountainside.
"If they feel the safest way is to land the aircraft [is] by putting one wheel down or two wheels down or using the hoist," Reed said, "then we'll figure out what the best way is and we'll do it."
And then there are the "what ifs" every difficult mission presents, Gates said, which can be mentally draining when the crew is trying to prevent them all.
Other than a similar National Guard unit at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, that handles rescues on the front range of the Rocky Mountains, no state entity can replicate the landings and hoists of the HAATS crews.
"If we didn't have these two organizations, then the [hikers] that got stuck would be in a lot of trouble," Reed said.
As a crew chief, Staff Sgt. Greg Yost typically operates the hoist during rescues.
In June, he lowered a hoist about 100 feet to save a skier who suffered cuts and an ankle injury after a small avalanche knocked him down, causing him to hit some rocks.
Hovering above 13,000 feet, the aircrew had to deal with strong winds in a narrow valley that drastically affected the power margin of the heavy helicopter.
"We were basically at our limit in power," Yost recalled.
While tough at times, the missions do bring Yost back to a job he never wanted to leave. Before coming to Colorado, he served on a medical evacuation aircrew in Afghanistan, picking up wounded troops in sometimes hot landing zones.
"That wasn't something that I really wanted to give up," he said. "So the fact that HAATS regularly conducted those kinds of missions was a big driving force in me wanting to come to this unit so I could continue helping people."
The work HAATS crews have done with hoist operations led the Army to develop a standardized hoist training program last year, Gates said.
The training site also creates scenario-based evaluations from the rescue flights to teach students during its weeklong course. The lessons give students an opportunity to discuss how the flight could have gone more smoothly.
"That's one thing we don't do, is rest on our laurels," Gates said. "We take information in from everybody that comes through here."