Alpine PJs Train for Mountain Rescues

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan
  • 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Some people learn within the confines of a climate-controlled classroom; others learn sitting on top of glaciers more than 13,000 feet above the surface of the earth.

Pararescuemen from the 56th Rescue Squadron here prepared for mountain operations, possibly in Afghanistan, by training within one of the world's most famous mountain ranges, the Alps, from March 27 through April 12.

During the first week, the team of 10 pararescuemen set up a base camp out of a cabin on the outskirts of Chamonix, France. Each day, they left camp and hiked into the mountains while learning how to pick the best routes of travel and spotting potential danger areas. They also trained on various rescue techniques, such as how to pull people from crevasses and how to save someone if they've been buried in an avalanche.

"We were enveloped in the training every day," said Senior Airman Nathan Simonson, a pararescueman with the 56th RQS. "I compare it to learning Spanish in a classroom versus learning and living it in Costa Rica."

They would wake up in the morning, start trekking into the mountains around 6 a.m. and stay out all day and into the night.

"There wasn't one point throughout the training that didn't help us tremendously," said a fellow PJ, Staff Sgt. Issaiah McPheron.

The Airmen said the training was essential in today's fight because mountain operations occur in Afghanistan.

The Alps provide the Airmen an environment similar to what is seen in that country. While the highest peak in the Alps "only" reaches 15,774 feet (Mount Blanc), the Hindu Kush range in Afghanistan reaches 24,580 feet (Noshaq).

"We have PJs here who have had to save people from very dangerous and adverse mountain conditions in Afghanistan," said Sergeant McPheron. "History has taught us we need these skills and need to be trained for these conditions. We're supposed to go where other people won't go to save lives."

After the initial week of training, three of the PJs had to fly home either for professional training or for personal reasons. The remaining seven readied themselves for the next stage of their training ... taking the knowledge they learned with them as they skied through the Alps along the Haute Route.

They required a guide to accurately follow the route so as to avoid danger areas such as frozen lakes, avalanche areas and hidden crevasses. So with 45-pound ruck sacks on their backs, the seven skied their way through 106 miles of mountains in six days. Their trek started in Chamonix, France, took them through Italy and ended in Zermatt, Switzerland.

Each night they stopped at a cabin, which were strategically constructed along the route to give mountaineers a place of rest. It was at one of these huts that the PJs left their student role and fell back into the medical profession.

"At one of the cabins we came across a gentleman who had an ear squeeze," said Airman Simonson. "He basically couldn't clear his ears, so we administered aid to the man and we were able to help."

Their assistance didn't stop at the cabin, all along the trail the pararescuemen came across people who needed assistance. The PJs talked about five other people who were having problems with their knees, hips and lower back, all of whom they were able to help.

Once they concluded their route and arrived in Zermatt, Switzerland, the PJs still weren't finished. Although they had already been up and down mountains for two weeks, they decided to celebrate not by relaxing by a warm fire and sipping hot chocolate, but by summiting Breithorn, one of 82 Alpine peaks which reach higher than 13,123 feet.