High drama: Rescue of two sheep hunters from cliff near Tonsina


After a sheep hunting trip went sideways on Aug. 11, members of the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard were called on to execute a daring rescue near Tonsina, approximately 165 miles east of Anchorage.

The two hunters found themselves in an untenable situation as they clung to a cliff, shown in the photo above, unable to move to safety.

The hunters’ quick thinking led them to send out an SOS signal using a two-way satellite communication device. The call for help was picked up by the Alaska State Troopers, who alerted the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center located at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

The AKRCC called upon the expertise of the 176th Wing.

The rescue team, comprising members from various units, was dispatched using a 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter and a 211th Rescue Squadron Lockheed HC-130J Combat King II, both manned with elite 212th Rescue Squadron Guardian Angel pararescue men. The crew also had with them U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Weltman of the 57th Rescue Squadron, joining from Aviano Air Base, Italy.

Upon approaching the site, the team had to tread carefully. Major Benjamin Leonard, piloting the 210th RQS HH-60, noted the danger of rotor-wash affecting the stranded hunters, which ruled out a direct overhead hoist.

After assessing the situation, the rescuers were inserted onto the site to prepare the hunters for the hoist. One hunter had managed to find shelter on a rock, while the other was precariously clinging to a ledge.

Pararescueman approaches the cliff where the two hunters were stranded. Photo credit: Alaska Air National Guard Maj. David Bedard.

Tech. Sgt. Michael Rogers of the 212th RQS PJ and Sgt. Weltman had the task of setting up a belay line for the trapped hunters.

After successfully securing the hunters, the special mission aviators aboard the HH-60 managed to hoist both the pararescuers and the stranded hunters.

The hunters were then ferried to the Alaska State Troopers at Mile 65 of the Richardson Highway. The mission was extended as the Lockheed HC-130 refueled the HH-60 in the air, amplifying the helicopter’s range.

The 212th Rescue Squadron is the Department of Defense’s busiest rescue force, and is part of the 176th Wing and consists of elite pararescuemen (PJs), combat rescue officers (CROs), and SERE specialists. These PJs and CROs undergo intense training, similar to the Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs, and don the unique flash patch on their berets.

Photo credit: Alaska Air National Guard Maj. David Bedard.


  1. I love to hear when our military are called in and successfully rescue those in distress here in Alaska!

    • Dan, I understand where you are coming from. Who knows why these hunters got in that situation. But in the scheme of things that tax payer money is spent on, this may be better than most. And it had a good outcome.

      • I was shot out there by another hunter and was fortunate enough to be nearby a lodge with a radio-phone. The Troopers dispatched a private medical evacuation helicopter to rescue me, and you’d better believe there was a bill. These clowns climbed into their predicament. They need to pay.
        There’s a multi-tiered rescue protocol out there. Some pay, some don’t. I paid. BIG. I’d have little financial mercy for morons who’d put themselves on that cliff and then call for others to risk their lives to save them from such stupidity.

  2. I thankful the help came and gave suburb service. But also I am encouraged when I see our men (and male youth) taking chances, getting messy, making mistakes. Our guys must do regular activities outdoors and if possible with another guy friend. Fellowship is good for the guys too not only for girls. Now! The two guys have lived to tell a story in their old age. Remember that time we were clawing on the edge of a mountain following after mountain goats?

    • They were sheep hunting. Not goat hunting.

      You don’t take these kind of risks in the mountains. These two are lucky they didn’t win the Darwin Award.

      • Exactly. It’s not goat hunting if it’s not a near death experience. Sheep hunting? Generally not so much unless you do stupid. Not sure what they thought they’d do on that cliff side even if they saw a legal sheep. They should be required to pay the taxpayers back.

  3. It would be interesting to learn more of this story. Right now, at first blush, it appears that a lot of poor judgment was involved as well as a lack of preparedness. More and more we find folks relying on electronics and others to bail them out instead of having a rope or whatever the appropriate gear for the situation would call for. The photo shows some pretty extreme terrain that would call for a higher level of skill and preparedness than most folks have. If they had gotten fogged in they probably would have traded that sat phone for a rope and some jam nuts in a heartbeat. Thankfully it all ended well this time and hopefully they learned a lesson, albeit at the taxpayers expense.

    • “…….Living life on the edge, high risk – high reward, quintessential American.”
      No insurance, no bond, no cost rescue! One can’t imagine a better reward than risk at the cost of the American taxpayer for the potential of personal ego gain.
      The feds finally put an end to this kind of foolishness on the slopes of Denali decades ago after years of extremely high altitude rescues for free. That probably ended so soon because many of the supposed climbers were non-citizens who had enough money to hire lawyers, but didn’t want to spend it on insurance.

      • Well- just like recovered or recovering alcoholic drinks a lot of coffee or soda. It’s much better for the guys rock or cliff climbing than looking a strippers or porn which too many men and boys are doing too much of it than outdoor sports alone like the man drowning at mendenhall glacier or these guys clawing the side of a cliff.

        • Let the alcoholics, pornographers, strip clubbers, and cliff hunters all buy their own insurance……or suffer their fates independently……..

  4. Key words here —Guardian Angels—- For all involved. Glad to see the Can Do Spirit of this Generation.

  5. “At the tax payer’s expense”

    Always love it when I see that written. Do you think those pilots, PJ’s etc. sit around playing gin rummy waiting for a call like this? No they don’t. They TRAIN on the tax payer’s dime. This rescue is another training mission. One that likely saved two lives.

    Thank you to those who train and serve.

    As far as “send the idiots the bill”. How do you know there are idiots. Do you mountain hunt? Everyone, myself included, who has mountain hunted in earnest has gotten themselves into situations that after they get out of it are lucky enough to admit they made a bad call. That goes for hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, etc.

    When it comes to pushing the envelope, even a little, in Alaska you run the risk of an incident like this.

    • If you love paying taxes so much, why don’t you pay more than what they ask? I’ll never understand the people that look down at their hard earned cash and see the government suckling away drinking it all and look up and go “this is great, we should make more people do this; and if they don’t we can jail them”. That’s you, right now. Telling other people, under threat of imprisonment, that they should love the thieves that take from them and should be happy to give more. At least it’s easy to tell liberals apart from humans when they talk this way.

    • “……..As far as “send the idiots the bill”. How do you know there are idiots…….”
      Because there’s a photo of the cliff that they were “hunting” on.

  6. Send a bill? How about a lifetime hunting privilege revocation? These two are pretty clearly too stupid to be allowed to hunt.

    • No need to punish them with regulatory bans. Just 10% of that bill (the amount of an insurance deductible) will likely keep them from additional stupidity for decades……..if they could ever even pay that bill……….

  7. Man, just looking at that photo, and imagining the situation those hunters found themselves in, gives me the absolute willies! Being stuck on the edge of a precipice is my ultimate nightmare and horror.

  8. You can’t fix stupid. They’re lucky the PJ’s responded as fast as they did.

    I’d really like to know their names. I believe this is a draw tag area, and it’s a solid possibility they’re “residents”.

    If that was a guide that took a client up that terrain, then he needs to have his big game license revoked for life.

  9. Is bagging a sheep worth your life? They both got very lucky, if the weather had turned the outcome would have been way different.

  10. Is there a dead sheep in the picture somewhere? Not the first time I’ve heard of a sheep hunter getting in trouble trying to retrieve a sheep. If they don’t retrieve it -is that wanton waste? Just asking.

    • “…….If they don’t retrieve it -is that wanton waste…….”
      Yes, it is. That is likely what they were attempting…….unless they’re even dumber than I can possibly imagine……..

  11. Wonder if these guys were looking back down the trail or way they had come and considered what the possibilities of getting the game back out without killing themselves might be. Also what about having to leave more of the animal behind than state salvage regs permit because you got yourself into a bad spot? Not making any judgements here – just wondering if they gave the above any thought. We live in an area where moose have to be removed in whole quarters – even in some walk in only areas. We have to think before we go to far or too steep as my spouse and I are to old to pack something as heavy as a rear moose quarter very far.

  12. My first month in Alaska I climbed the loose rock above Eklutna glacier in 1971. Being from Chicago I had zero experience with climbing. I was holding a quart thermos bottle and quickly realized I would have to leave it as I needed both hands to get down or risk injury or death. Anytime you climb a steep slope one must assess how to get down safely before going too far up. I learned this lesson early and these hunters should have done this before climbing w/o ropes and climbing gear.

    • 100% accurate, Bob. I’ve been there too. Going down is when the injuries and deaths occur. The reason is because you can’t see precisely where to place your feet. And looking down us more frightening and distracting than looking up.

  13. Ah. Mrak we being too hard on these men living out extreme sports. We hard on our men living out sexual fantasies and watching pornographic material. We become too hard on our men doing something physically good for his mind, physical health, his spirit, and his emotions. Growing up boys outnumbered us girls coming to school after a weekend with healing arms and legs in casts. They wore it like a badge of honor or medal enjoying all the attention their classmates gave autographing their colored casts. I miss that. Todays boys I think aren’t living as much as these two young men getting outdoors climbing as high as one can on a tree, swinging from rope swings into rivers, pedaling his bicycle as fast he can until he crashes, rollerblading or skateboarding down the steepest curviest road. The boys and young men they still need to be outside pushing their limits even into death (of course unintentionally). That’s more likely why small plane pilots are more males than females, the men like the risk every time they go up into the unknown sky. The sky is our limit.

  14. Another thing mothers and fathers today must let their little boys under 17 takes risks that challenge him than keeping him locked up and confined to the home. Else when he grows up he’ll either be a scared easily intimidated man including too intimidated to approach a girl waiting for a girl to approach him or he’ll take the risks (which would be higher risks than the childhood risks he wasn’t allowed) when mommy and daddy can’t be around when he is a grown-up.

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