Latest News

Pararescuer challenges the extreme wilderness to save others

Air National Guard Sgt. Robert Schnell's job is to save lives in some of the world's wildest and most dangerous terrain.

He executes that job with passion.

Sometimes it requires the U.S. Air Force pararescueman to walk the razor's edge. He admits to occasional concern about stepping out there -- only a fool would feel otherwise. But he always goes.

There is a part of him that needs the adrenaline fix.

"The job has been definitely more of a calling for me than a job," he said.

Like all PJs, as these rescue specialists are popularly called, Schnell is sometimes asked to put his life on the line to save others. Like all PJs, he feels good every time a rescue proves successful -- and he has completed hundreds, both those that were and those that weren't.

In this, at least, the PJs share a humanitarian calling with social workers, ER doctors, policemen, guidance counselors, firefighters and dozens of others.

More than a humanitarian calling, however, is needed to survive as a PJ. The required skill set borders on the unbelievable: paramedic, professional scuba diver, advanced mountaineer, high-altitude parachutist, small-arms expert, marksman, operator of almost all things mechanical from heavy equipment to high-speed chase vehicles.

For Americans more familiar with television than with any of the above professions, think of it this way:

The perfect PJ may be a blend of MacGyver and "M*A*S*H's" Hawkeye Pierce with pinches of Daniel Boone and Sir Edmund Hillary stirred in.

Schnell makes no claim to being the perfect PJ. He is quick, in fact, to mention the names of others to whom he looks up, like Skip Kula, who is due to retire this year at the age of 47. Kula has been credited with saving well over 100 lives. Schnell is closing in on 50 saves.

At 33 , the guy who grew up in Anchorage as Bobby Schnell will, no doubt, be slightly embarrassed just to read his name in the same sentence with "perfect PJ," and his colleagues will surely be guffawing about that MacGyver-Hawkeye-Boone-Hillary reference.

Air Force PJs are, after all, professionals in all the best meanings of that word, and thus it is admittedly a little silly to be comparing them to television characters and almost mythological figures of forest and mountain lore.

But what Alaska's PJs do is so far outside the norm of what most people know, it's hard to capture the reality without touchstones.


This was clear when Schnell offered a snapshot into his life for a group of students and others at the University of Alaska Anchorage early this month. Some of the rescues in which he and other Alaska PJs have been involved -- the ones they talk about here in Alaska and the ones that remain off the books in war zones like Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa -- are the stuff of action-adventure films.

Only, these are real.

Schnell and several Alaska PJs helicoptered into New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. They promptly commandeered boats and an abandoned fire truck to rescue citizens stranded by rising flood waters, took to cutting down light poles along the freeways to make interstate overpasses safe for use as helicopter landing zones, and took some of the first steps toward returning order to a city that had gone lawless.

"It definitely felt like a war zone," said Schnell, who has visited several although he remains based in Alaska, where the battles PJs wage are against Mother Nature.

When the giant, car-carrying freighter Cougar Ace rolled on its side in the Gulf of Alaska last summer, Air Guard pilots and PJs flew 11 hours from Adak -- with six aerial refuelings of their helicopters along the way -- to rescue the crew. Schnell was one of the PJs lowered onto the deck of the freighter to initiate that rescue.

An active adventure gene helped Schnell find this line of work.

Alaska Pacific University professor Roman Dial can understand. Now middle-aged, Dial has spent a lifetime sticking his neck out in the tall peaks of the 49th state, mountain biking the length of the Alaska Range, packrafting just about anything, hanging out on ropes in the canopies of Amazon and leading Playboy Bunnies through the jungle in an Eco-Challenge adventure race, to name just a view of his many adventures.


Dial happened to be in the audience for Schnell's UAA presentation and registered a predictable reaction.

"I'm ready to sign up," he said.

Dial might still be able to meet the physical and mental requirements of a PJ, but he's too old to qualify, which is in some ways unfortunate. The PJs, Schnell said, are always looking for recruits.

What Schnell fails to underline, of course, is that most who apply don't make the grade. Training is too difficult.

Schnell, who became a PJ more by accident than by design, survived it because he is tough. Perhaps just as important is his attitude.

Anyone who has been around Schnell on the slopes of Mount McKinley or in Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic Races -- events so demanding they scare off most athletes -- has seen that.

Positive attitude is Schnell's game. It's been key to him and buddy Chris Robertson winning a couple of Classics, including an unforgiving course from Chicken to Central last year that had Schnell wishing he had trained even harder.

"That was a painful race," Schnell said.


As a kid growing up in Anchorage, Bobby Schnell was known as young man with a respectable fastball and an excellent curve. He struck out 10 against Chugiak in 1992 to help his Service Cougar baseball teammates get to the state championship.

The mountains and wilderness in those days were pretty much just the scenery on the horizon behind the baseball diamond. It wasn't until Schnell left home to attend a junior college Outside that he started to think differently.

"I went to play some college ball in northern California, where people asked me if I had done this or that -- (climb) Denali, walk on glaciers, etc. That sort of put the bug in my ear, so when I got back from school in the spring of '94 my buddy and I bought an ice ax and spent the next two years tooling around in the (Chugach) foothills around Flattop."

Schnell discovered an addiction.

Pretty soon he was spending his free time hanging out at the Alaska Rock Gym. By the fall of '96, he was back in Alaska, attending classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage and running the gear room for the Alaska Wilderness Studies program.


While he was taking classes in mountaineering and first aid and trying to figure out what to do with his life, an uncle retiring from the National Guard suggested the PJs might be a good fit.

Schnell, as free-spirited as most young Alaska climbers, wasn't sure. From the outside, the U.S. military can appear restrictively regimented.

Still, Schnell learned enough about the PJs to make him curious, and in November 1997 he took the entrance test. He passed, but didn't enlist in the Guard until the next year.

What ensued was 10 weeks of hell -- standard PJ basic training -- after which came dive school, survival school, jump school, and training in a whole bunch of other specialties. Suffice it to say, Schnell didn't make it back to Alaska for three years.

His adventure-racing career started about a year later when he was lured into the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge, which Dial helped organize.

"It kind of taught me a lot," Schnell said.

Where the military is all about doing dangerous things in the safest way, Alaska adventure racing is about doing things the most efficient way. Sometimes that has led people to compromise safety, though to date no one has died in any of the annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classics dating back to 1982.

There have, however, been some close calls -- and plenty of suffering.

Schnell said he and Robertson got so cold floating the Charley River in packrafts last summer that they were barely able to function well enough to get a fire going to ward off hypothermia.

"It was all we could do to even get out of the boats at 1 in the morning," he said.

Listening to Schnell talk, one almost got the idea that the Classic could prove a good training ground for PJs -- or future PJs.

"I can't stand the first 24 hours because it's painful," Schnell said.

After that, things get better, until fatigue brings on hallucinations.

"We've kind of learned to control them," Schnell said.

And in the end, maintaining control is kind of what survival is all about, whether you're trying to save someone else's life or simply your own.