ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — The Air Force has released the latest Portraits in Courage, which highlights the courage of Airmen. One of them is Master Sgt. Christopher Uriarte, an Air Force reservist with the 306th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.
While assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as an Air National Guard pararescueman, over a four-day period in August 2010, Uriarte faced one of his most challenging missions in the Chugach mountain range of Alaska.
His pararescue team was notified that a civilian aircraft carrying five individuals had crashed onto a glacier at 8,500 feet. Unprepared for blizzard conditions, the survivors were in desperate need of assistance. Attempts to airdrop supplies to the survivors were futile due to wind gusts up to 70 mph that blew the bundles of rescue equipment off target.
Uriarte and three teammates devised a plan to reach the victims. They requested to be inserted beneath the storm, near the base of the glacier, 3,000 feet beneath and five miles from the crash site.
Aboard an Air Force HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, which maneuvered as high up the glacier as the weather permitted, the team prepared to jump. The team successfully landed on the glacier, donned their skis, roped together, turned on their headlamps, and began the trek upwards toward the crash site as the sun set.
The team steadily ascended the glacier through the night using special wands to probe the snow to avoid falling into one of the many partially covered crevasses. Although they were weighted down by heavy backpacks and towed two sleds full of medical and rescue equipment, the team trekked as quickly as possible knowing that it was a race against time to rescue the survivors who were enduring harsh conditions and hurricane-force winds.
The team crossed snow bridges and passed beneath hanging ice, stopping only momentarily to hydrate. Each was drenched to the bone from the blizzard conditions which caused frostbite and hypothermia. After nearly 24 hours of non-stop climbing, they reached the crash site.
Uriarte and his team treated the survivors, gave them warm clothes, and awaited airlift. The next day, a U.S. Army UH-60 helicopter attempted to land but crashed onto the glacier approximately 200 meters from the camp.
The pararescuemen instinctively ran to the wreckage and escorted the shaken aircrew to their makeshift camp. The storm raged for two more days. When it finally subsided, all the crash survivors and Uriate’s team were airlifted by helicopter off the glacier.
For his heroic actions during this life-saving mission, Uriarte was submitted for the Airman’s Medal.