They were climbing, looking for caves when it happened.

Danny Riat and his friend, Hunter Nelson, started up a slope which turned into a cliff-side near Archer Mountain in western Skamania County in Washington July 30.

“We wanted to explore,” Nelson said Monday.

It was late afternoon when they got separated.

Riat got stuck on a ledge and couldn’t go back. He kept on climbing, Nelson said.

Then, Riat slid down about 20 feet before falling through the air about 50 feet and hitting the ground below.

Nelson remembers making his way to his friend, panicking. Then he recalls feeling relieved when he heard Riat groan.

“It was nice to hear he was alive.”

Cell phone coverage was patchy, but Nelson contacted his family in Washougal. For five hours, he kept his friend warm and still, lighting a fire and stripping off his own clothes to use as a blanket.

In the meantime, Skamania County rescue teams tried to reach the scene, but the terrain was too challenging.

It was time to call the U.S. Coast Guard.

The call came in to Air Station Astoria at around 10:30 p.m., and a four-person MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew was sent to the scene, about 100 miles east, arriving about half an hour later.

Nelson recalls being on the ground and listening to the helicopter’s approach and the sense of relief it provided.

“We heard it and I’m like, ‘Danny, there’s your helicopter,’” he said.

The pilot, Lt. Mark Seavey, debated briefly about how he could best maneuver the helicopter to lower the rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Gaenzle, down to assess the situation. It was Gaenzle’s first rescue since completing training just a few weeks before.

Trees made approaching the cliffside difficult, and as close as they could get, it was still approximately 13 stories down to Riat and Nelson.

As he hovered in position, as low as he could safely go, Seavey had Flight Mechanic Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Gorleski shine a spotlight on the trees directly behind the tail rudder to the right. Co-pilot Ben Berman used night vision goggles to gauge how close they were getting to the trees on the left.

“It was a tight spot,” Seavey said.

As soon as one told Seavey to make an adjustment, the other would tell him to move the other way.

Working the hoist, Gorleski watched as he lowered Gaenzle down to the scene.

After that, things moved quickly. Gaenzle assessed Riat’s condition, and transferred him to a backboard for the hoist 150 feet up the cliff to the helicopter. He can’t quite remember how he did it, but Gaenzle, 24, picked Riat up while on the board and carried him up to the spot where he could connect him to the cable.

“I think it was adrenaline, really,” he said.

Next, Nelson was hoisted up. 

On Monday, Nelson and his family met the crew from the helicopter – the crew that rescued their son and saved Riat’s life.

Riat is still recuperating from his injuries – a broken back, multiple fractures and other injuries – but there’s hope he’ll recover, Nelson said.

The family thanked the Coast Guard for being there at the right time, prepared and skilled to make the rescue happen without a hitch.

“I’m so proud of each and every one of you,” Nelson’s grandfather, Shannon McCord of Vancouver, Wash., told the crew.

“Thank you guys so much,” Hunter Nelson’s mom, Shauna Nelson, said. “You’re our heroes.”

“You guys did this flawlessly,”?Hunter Nelson said. “It was amazing how far you went and how many things you took care of.”

“It is what we train to do,” said Capt. Bruce Jones, the commander of Sector Columbia River. Jones, a pilot, listened to the audio tape of the rescue and wasn’t surprised to hear how the crew had evaluated the scene and figured out possible solutions together.

He commended the work Nelson did to keep Riat as warm and stable as was possible.

“He did a great job to help on scene,” Jones said.

Gaenzle also commended all that Hunter Nelson did for his friend.

“It probably saved his life,” Gaenzle said.

  

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