Local rescuers and troopers
An exchange worker from China was rescued from the backside of Town Mountain Wednesday afternoon after he and a co-worker from Valdez Subway separated Tuesday night on what the pair believed would be a quick hike to the top of the steep ridge.
“I’m just glad he’s back,” Janet Sholer, owner of Valdez Subway, said. Sholer employs the hiker, Song “Steven” Chen as part of a student worker exchange program. “There were people out looking for him all night…this is a great town.”
The hikers began their trek through the thick brush and steep incline of Town Mountain in the late afternoon, Tuesday, Aug. 14. As inexperienced hikers, the pair began the climb without extra food, water or even hiking gear. As the sun began to go down Tuesday night, Chen’s companion became worried and tried to persuade him to go back to town. He reports that Chen was eager to make the top of the ridge, so one went down, Chen continued to go up.
By the time his companion reached the ground he began to worry about Chen. According to a press release issued by the city Wednesday morning, Chen called 911 at around 11 p.m. Tuesday night, reporting he was “lost, tired, and unable to proceed.”
Ground-based mountain rescue teams began an intensive search of the mountain shortly after the call. City officials called in Leigh Coates, helicopter pilot and owner of Vertical Solutions, to help find Chen, who at one point reported that he could see the road and lights of town. Coates said she began the air based search at 7 a.m.
After three and half hours in the air, spotters from the helicopter failed to find the hiker and it was feared he might succumb to hypothermia and dehydration if not found. State troopers sent their rescue helicopter Helo 1 to aid in the rescue. Helo 1 is equipped with heat sensing equipment to aid in rescues where victims may not be readily visible.
After both helicopters had thoroughly searched and re-searched the part of the mountain facing town, the rescuers began to search the back side of the mountain.
“We spotted him about 10 minutes later,” Coates said. The tracking device on the helicopter showed at least 100 passes over the front of the mountain.
Fire department volunteer Darryn Hughes, who was with Coates, spotted Chen on a ledge on the backside of the mountain. Coates clocked Chen at a height of 1892 feet.
“I saw his shoulders and he was waving his arms,” Hughes said.
With a fixed location, Helo 1, with fire department volunteer rescuers Sam Owens and Ken White, moved in to extract Chen from the ledge.
“We just pulled him in,” Trooper pilot Mel Nading said minutes after landing the chopper, with a grateful Chen inside.
Nading said the hard mounted rescue harness pulled Chen to safety with little fanfare.
Chen waved to the waiting ambulance crew, handful of coworkers and hiking companion after leaving the helicopter, which landed on the parkstrip across from the fire department on Pioneer Dr.
He repeatedly thanked everyone he passed on his way to the ambulance. Chen was covered in mud but appeared alert and grateful after spending the night on the mountain with only street clothes and a hoodie for protection.
“The young man came out of the ordeal with a few scratches and a lot of respect for the outdoors,” the weekly press release issued by the fire dept. said.
Friends and coworkers wept after Chen’s rescue; relieved of the fatigue of the long, overnight vigil.
Sholer jokingly said Chen could have the day off from his normally scheduled shift.
While all who participated in the search and eventual rescue for Chen were gratified at the end result, Coates was particularly touched by the day’s events.
“This is my first rescue,” Coates said shortly after Chen was safely on his way to the hospital where he was treated for dehydration. “It felt really good. I can’t tell you.”