By PATRICIA COLL FREEMAN
Geologists Katharine Bull and Robert Gillis only planned to work for a couple hours in the mountains around Portage Glacier on Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The weather was clear, but that changes on a dime in Alaska.
Shortly after a helicopter dropped them off in separate locations, the weather turned, making it too dangerous to return. Bull and Gillis spent the night alone in the cold, whipping rain and murky fog.
The next day, as bad weather continued, the volunteer Alaska Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG) was asked to help. Upon receiving the call, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church parishioner and expert mountain-climber Greg Bragiel suited up and headed into the wilderness.
Bragiel’s team — assigned to locate Gillis — took a helicopter as far up the mountain as possible. Flying into wild weather can be the most dangerous part of a rescue mission, Bragiel told the Catholic Anchor in a recent interview.
“You could barely see anything” that day, he said. On the choppy flight, “I was saying my prayers…and making the Sign of the Cross both for myself and for the people I was with and for the helicopter pilot and that the person that we were going to look for up by Portage was still alive and safe.”
When the helicopter could go no farther, the rescuers were dropped off to hike in the rest of the way. They climbed about 2,000 feet, into the night. The next day they found Gillis, cold but uninjured. The rescuers fortified him with dry clothes and food and fluids, and then they led him down the mountain to the helicopter pick-up point – and to safety.
MOUNTAINEERING FOR GOD
For Bragiel climbing high-angle cliffs and sifting through avalanche-covered mountainsides to find those “‘lost sheep’ and bring them back to their families,” as he put it, is spiritual work.
“I know I’m here on earth to know, love and serve my creator, and secondarily to help other people. I’m just using the things that I know and my skills to do that,” he observed.
Bragiel is demure about his death-defying works of mercy. He acknowledges only that he has “some skills” which some others don’t have — namely, specialized mountaineering skills honed across years climbing the cliffs and crags of Alaska’s mountain ranges.
In 2005 he joined the Anchorage Mountain Rescue Group, a non-profit volunteer search and rescue organization. Its members search for people who are lost, injured or stranded in Alaska’s backcountry – and if necessary they retrieve the bodies of the deceased. Their missions involve lost hikers, hunters and children, those fallen on mountainside cliffs, buried in avalanches and trapped in crashed planes.
This summer Bragiel and his fellow rescuers took part in the effort to find the missing Michael LeMaitre, a runner in the Mount Marathon race, bushwhacking through the woods and brush on the famous mountain in Seward.
As with his teammates Bragiel is on-call 24 hours a day. Additionally he is the group’s equipment manager and board member. “I’m just a little part of it,” Bragiel insisted.
PHYSICAL & SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
Although the job is unpaid, Bragiel takes it to heart. In each mission the lives of the stranded as well as fellow rescuers are on the line, he said. So the dentist-by-day regularly trains in the gym and on the mountain, making Bragiel leaner than most 20-year-olds. His close-cropped hair is graying but looks prematurely so. It doesn’t seem possible that he has just turned 60.
In addition to physical training, Bragiel reviews notes on rescue techniques while at home. It’s about minimizing risk, he explained.
“We don’t risk lives and put our rescuers at great risk if we know there’s going to be a bad outcome,” he said, adding, “We don’t want to have more people dead.”
There isn’t an ounce of bravado in the soft-spoken Bragiel.
“I’ve been in the mountains enough to know what my limits are,” he said.
A HIGHER POWER
When on missions, Bragiel prays “plenty of Our Fathers” and “lots of Hail Marys” for those he’s searching for and for the rescuers.
Entrusting her husband to God, Bragiel’s wife Mary Beth prays too.
“I don’t fear for him. When it’s his time to go, it’s his time to go…but I do certainly pray and ask God to protect him and to protect the others,” she said. “I believe that prayers are extremely beneficial and that God listens to all of us, even if things don’t turn out the way we might like them to.”
Physical and spiritual disciplines help Bragiel do what seems impossible to many — rescue people deep in the wilderness and in sometimes dangerous, sub-freezing temperatures.
Such was the case on a frigid day in late February four years ago when three skiers veered off Indian Trail near Girdwood. They had been out for hours. As the light waned and their strength and water supply disappeared, the group was far from home. By the time they called 911, the clouds and wind prevented the state troopers’ helicopter from coming.
During a late evening dinner, Bragiel received the page. He and his teammates snowshoed into the dark night searching for the group. Between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning, the rescuers arrived. They accompanied the desperate skiers down the trail to snowmachines, which then carried them the rest of the way to safety.
“I was really happy to bring people back to their family,” Bragiel recalled. “It’s pretty easy to lose faith and just give up, and that’s unfortunately what happens with people sometimes. When they’re just exhausted and they’re out of resources and in over their head, they just kind of give up and look for help, and that’s where we are – to give them that help and that hope.”
BRINGING THE DEAD ‘HOME’
But sometimes rescues turn into recoveries of the dead. That is an equally necessary job, Bragiel believes. These people need to come “home” too, he explained.
Three years ago Bragiel and his teammates were called to Seattle Creek, near Turnagain Pass, to search for snowmachiners lost in an avalanche. There was too much risk for another avalanche so the rescuers waited more than a week to begin searching. Finally they were able to head in and dig out the deceased from the snowslide.
And two years ago Bragiel took part in the well-publicized search for the president of Conoco Philips and his friend killed in an avalanche in Grandview Valley.
“It took us three full days of probing and searching and poking holes in the snow,” Bragiel said.
These are missions Bragiel thinks “a lot about,” he said, hinting at the spiritual and emotional weight of the work. But Bragiel strives to keep his priorities – God, family and others – in order.
“Ever since I’ve known him, he has talked about the balance of life,” Mary Beth said of her husband.
Bragiel believes helping others is just one part of his mission on earth. “The other part of my faith walk is you go to church and you do Bible study and you spend time with your wife and family,” he explained.
That it all starts with God is evident at the 7 a.m. daily Mass that the Bragiels attend at Holy Family Cathedral.
“We just get up early and go visit Jesus first and then go do our work,” Bragiel said.
Serving others is his way of saying “‘Thank you’ to God,” Mary Beth observed.
In addition to mountain rescues Bragiel volunteers at the Brother Francis Shelter for the homeless, teaches mountain safety and, together with his wife, volunteers for Special Olympics and Marriage Encounter – a marriage enrichment program.
Why add dangerous alpine rescues to an already busy schedule? “I’m trying to make God smile,” Bragiel said.