Darkness was closing in and bad weather was on the way when the crew of a New Hampshire Army National Guard helicopter spotted a missing Manchester hiker who had gotten lost in the White Mountain National Forest.
This was Thursday night and Randy Willett, 53, had been out in the Pemigewasset Wilderness for nearly a week.
The Black Hawk’s pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Rob Reckert, said they quickly came up with a plan: “We were going to extract the hiker with the external hoist on the helicopter. And that’s what we did.”
Willett was plucked off the side of Mount Lincoln at 8:15 p.m. Thursday and flown directly to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He is recovering from hypothermia and was listed in good condition Saturday at the Lebanon hospital.
Willett’s brother, Dan Willett, said in an emailed statement that his brother is “responding favorably to treatment.”
“We cannot express how in awe and thankful we are for all involved in his rescue,” he said. “Whether they gave an hour or worked the whole three days, we will never forget the effort these men and women put in.”
On Friday, April 28, Willett began a four-day hike in the remote wilderness area that turned into an ordeal of survival after he lost the trail and fell into a brook. Last Tuesday afternoon, he managed to call 9-1-1 but could give only the barest details of his route before the call was lost.
Family members were able to tell the state Fish and Game Department more information about Willett’s planned hike, and conservation officers began searching the trails on Tuesday.
The search continued into Wednesday, with volunteers from Pemi Valley Search and Rescue Team, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team, U.S. Forest Service, Civil Air Patrol and Grafton County Sheriff’s Department joining the effort. The New Hampshire Army National Guard helicopter flew the search crews into remote areas to spare them the long hike in through snow that was waist-high at times.
The conditions were treacherous, the weather miserable. “Wednesday, we had everything,” said Lt. James Kneeland, who coordinated the search for Fish and Game. “We had hail, we had snow, we had rain.”
It’s what he called “true-blue, perfect hypothermic conditions: wet, damp, cold weather.”
“The guys that hiked up high were in the fog and the clouds the entire time,” he said.
But the weather improved on Thursday, and the National Guard helicopter was able to drop ground search crews on the peaks around Franconia, Kneeland said. Meanwhile, the Guard’s helicopter and aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol searched from the air.
Then, at 2:22 p.m. Thursday, Willett was able to call 9-1-1 again briefly from his cellphone. And this time, the agency was able to place his coordinates near the “saddle” between Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln, Kneeland said.
Once again, the National Guard helicopter dropped search crews, already exhausted from days of working in deep snow, into the area. “They were pretty well used up,” Kneeland said.
But they were determined to find Willett. “They would have probably spent the night out there,” he said. “Knowing that he was still alive, we would have kept on going through the night.”
The Black Hawk’s commander, Chief Warrant Officer George Munson of Bedford, had been out flying most of the day, so the Guard quickly pulled in a fresh crew and the helicopter took off again at 6:50 p.m. from Concord. On board were Munson, pilot Reckert from Gorham, Maine, crew chief 1st Sgt. Greg Gerbig of Belmont, Spc. Ben Webster, a medic for the Guard, and Fish and Game Lt. Scott Lacrosse. They landed briefly in the parking lot at Cannon Mountain for a quick consult with Fish and Game, then took off again.
As they flew over the search area, they spotted a set of tracks in the snow, Reckert said. Then they saw a blue hat in the brush.
As Reckert flew slowly over the east side of the mountain, Webster spotted a red light shining from an area where a rockslide had occurred. It turned out to be from Willett’s headlamp.
“We just happened to be at the right angle to spot his red light,” Reckert said. “We actually found him on the only horizontal rock in the middle of a rockslide.”
Willett was all but invisible on the rockface in the dusk. “The clothes he was wearing blended in with the rocks and dirt, Gerbig said. “It was a good thing he had that headlamp on. That helped out a lot.”
The helicopter hovered as the hoist, attached to the outside of the aircraft, lowered medic Webster to the ground. He strapped Willett into a seat on the hoist and it lifted both men to safety around 8:15 p.m.
Reckert said the rescue was challenging. “The ground was at a very steep angle, so the helicopter, to clear the rotor blades, has to be at a higher attitude because of the angle.”
But the crew was well-trained and confident, he said. “If we couldn’t do it safely, we wouldn’t have done it.”
Within minutes, crew and patient were on their way to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, a 20-minute flight away.
Gerbig said Willett was “pretty beat up from the weather and the conditions,” but he was conscious and able to speak.
Reckert said being part of a successful rescue meant a lot to the entire crew. “For our stateside support mission, this is probably the most gratifying thing you can do, where you actually find somebody, you’re able to save them and hopefully give them a fighting chance at the hospital,” he said.
Gerbig, who has been in the Guard for 24 years, echoed the satisfaction. “That’s what we train for,” he said. “We’re all glad that we were able to find him and get him to a hospital, and hopefully he does well.”
The search and rescue was a huge team effort, Gerbig stressed. “It wasn’t just us; it was also the guys on the ground.”
Kneeland said the ground search crews didn’t make it back down the mountain until after midnight, but no one complained. “Everyone was ecstatic,” he said. “It was a happy hike out.”
He was impressed with the teamwork and determination of everyone who took part in the search, from the volunteer groups, his own conservation officers and the Guardsmen. “You put out the phone call and people show up,” he said. “It’s just kind of the New Hampshire way.”
Kneeland said he hasn’t spoken with Randy Willett and doesn’t know if he had a Hike Safe card. It’s too early to determine whether any charges might be assessed for the rescue, he said, but Willett appears to have had the right equipment and experience for his planned trip, since he managed to survive for nearly a week in difficult conditions. “He obviously didn’t just go out and sleep in a Ziplock baggie,” he said. “He … was able to stay alive for six days. That’s somewhat impressive.”
For the rescuers, it was a happy ending to a tense week.
Reckert has been in the military for nearly 20 years. And he said, “To be able to do something like this is pretty gratifying, and makes all the long days of training worth it.”
And Kneeland said, “I couldn’t be happier for the Willett family and all the searchers that really spent a lot of time out there.”
Meanwhile, Kneeland said he’s hoping the heavy rain this weekend will discourage hikers from going up north. The trails there are mounded with packed snow, making it easy to slip off into the deep snow on the sides.
Down south, he said, folks haven’t seen snow for a few weeks, so they’re unaware that there’s still deep snow and “miserable conditions” up north.