Special Warfare Airmen rescue climber UPDATED: 9 March 2021

  • Published
  • By Andrew C. Patterson
  • Special Warfare Training Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: Select last names omitted for operational security reasons. A Special Warfare Pararescue (PJ) eight-man team from the 351st Special Warfare Training Squadron (SWTS), Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico sprang into action to help rescue a civilian climber injured by falling rocks Jan. 7, 2021, in Ouray, Colorado.


Tech. Sgt. Joseph, section chief of individual skills, and government civilian employee Zach, program manager of individual skills, both of the 351st SWTS, were participating in a job-skills training exercise in Ouray at the time the incident occurred.  


On the fourth day of their training, their group was practicing conducting an ice-wall companion rescue. Joseph’s role was to play a patient, who had gone over the side of a canyon and was injured.


As the team began setting up for the exercise scenario and Joseph descended the ice wall, a civilian climber at the bottom was injured by a falling rock.


“We all heard, ‘Rock!’ indicating a falling object from above,” Joseph said. “There’s a significant difference in hearing “Rock!” versus “Ice!” in that “Ice!” means someone is climbing and you can see it (ice) most of the time. I witnessed several rocks tumble down the side of the canyon and one strike the climber. She cried out and the instructor we were with, who was a member of the local mountain rescue team, called for an immediate evacuation.”


The evacuation call went out to the Ouray Mountain Search & Rescue (SAR) team. This incident occurred along a 1.5-mile ice wall located at a popular ice-climbing park. Approximately three to four basketball-sized boulders had fallen from a top ledge and injured the 16-year-old civilian climber, who was resting at the bottom of the wall.


This type of incident is usually not on the minds of climbers at the ice-park, as rocks do not normally fall, all the way down, from the opposite side of the canyon, according to Zach.


“Before the SAR team arrived, we walked over to introduce ourselves and see what medical assistance was needed. We then called up to the top for our medical ruck and rewarming gear to be lowered,” said Zach. “We then assisted the SAR team with setting up a vacuum sling and a break-a-part liter in preparation for a high-angle evacuation.”


The Airmen, along with several civilian medical professionals, responded quickly and moved to the climber’s location on the canyon wall. Upon evaluation of the injury, it was determined immediate care was needed.


The special warfare members assisted the SAR team using on-scene equipment to prepare the wall anchors and rope systems needed to evacuate the patient.


“Once we got her to the top, we carried her out about 200 yards to a tracked snow vehicle that drove to the ambulance a half-mile or so away,” said Zach. “It was a combined effort between the local guides and the climbers, Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, and the special warfare members, to be able to evacuate her quickly and safely. It was also an awesome effort between civilian, local, and government agencies.”


All PJ’s receive two years of initial skills training, which includes lifesaving and emergency response skills, before moving into operational units. They also take part in numerous on-the-job training activities in order to continue honing these skills throughout their career.


“The stress of indoctrination courses, medical scenarios, and additional upgrade training all prepare us to not react to the anxiety the average person deals with in these situations. This is our normal baseline, and we're the ‘calm ones’ so-to-speak in these situations, and perform,” said Zach.


“These things happen right, life in general, especially stateside. We as PJ’s just happen to be in the right place at the right time sometimes,” said Joseph. “We had competent and confident people there to be able to assist the local rescue team.”


“The Special Warfare Training Wing’s priority is to produce, develop, integrate and build Special Warfare Airmen. By design, they are confident, capable, and can make a difference on the battlefield,” said Chief Master Sgt. Todd Popovic, command chief, SWTW. “I think this is a perfect example of the quick-thinking and leadership skills we look for in each of our Airmen. It’s also a great example of the quality and professional caliber of people we build here at the SWTW.”


Air Force Special Warfare (AFSPECWAR) consists of ground combat forces that specialize in airpower application across hostile, denied, or diplomatically or politically sensitive environments. Members of AFSPECWAR are employed to provide global access, precision strike, and personnel recovery capabilities across the spectrum of conflict and the multi-domain battlefield.

For more information on AFSPECWAR career fields visit https://www.airforce.com/careers/indemand-careers/special-warfare.