Sasebo sailors rescue climber who fell from Mount Fuji summit
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2011
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Petty Officer 1st Class Corey Baughman got more than he bargained for when he decided that a winter climb of Mount Fuji would be the perfect adventure before separating from the Navy and shipping off to the States.
Baughman, Petty Officer 3rd Class Adam Andryc and Petty Officer 1st Class Dillon Mudloff were within 100 yards of the summit of Japan’s highest mountain earlier this month when they decided to turn back because of the weather.
Suddenly, a climber went hurtling by from above.
“It was surreal,” Baughman recalled. “I thought for sure the guy was dead.”
For the next 24 hours, the sailors and some Japanese climbers risked their own safety to give aid to the man. At the end of the ordeal, Baughman was headed home with more than the pride of summiting Mount Fuji. He spent the night in a freezing hut with the injured man, had to climb back up the mountain to retrieve his car keys and ended up with frostbitten toes.
The sailors began their ascent around 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 and hiked until about midnight. Their plan was to climb the mountain and snowboard down — one last “Hooyah” for Baughman, a 36-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, who was leaving the Navy to go home to Denver to care for his ailing mother.
They broke camp at 4 a.m. the next day and made a push for the 12,388-foot summit. But the mountain proved to be too much.
“Mother nature was angry that day,” Mudloff said Friday in Sasebo. “It was out of our skill level. It was super steep, the wind was ripping. We didn’t have ropes and we’re not expert climbers. It was a bad day to be climbing.”
They got within 100 meters of the summit, but decided to turn around as conditions deteriorated. “We don’t easily walk away from the summit when we’re that close,” Mudloff said. “We admitted defeat.”
The trio decided to take some pictures and video at the highest point they had reached.
“It was definitely a good experience up until that point,” Andryc said.
Then, as the video camera rolled, a 60-year-old Japanese man fell from a ridge above. Mudloff said the man went flying by them at what appeared to be 40 mph, falling 500 meters in an instant.
As the sailors began their descent to the fallen man, they ran into several Japanese hikers with rescue gear.
The group reached the man 30 minutes after the fall. He was sitting upright, crumpled. The men phoned for help, but they were told that a search-and-rescue helicopter could not fly up past 3,000 meters.
They feared the man might have spinal injuries, but they decided that if they did not move him, he would freeze to death, Baughman said.
The three sailors tried to keep the man warm as conditions worsened. Baughman could tell that his friends were starting to get hypothermia.
“We were about to be a part of the problem,” Mudloff said.
Baughman sent the men down the mountain and stayed behind with the injured man. Later, Baughman started lowering him, wrapped in sleeping bag, down the icy mountain.
“It was slow going,” Baughman recalled.
Once the two got below 3,000 meters, Baughman called for a search-and-rescue team. He was told that conditions were too bad to fly a rescue helicopter. Baughman decided to take cover in a storage building, he said.
After digging out the hut and using his ice axe to get inside, Baughman found a can and lit a fire. His phone died, and the hut floor caught fire. After extinguishing the flames, he and the man rode out the frigid night.
At 8 a.m. Dec. 11, a rescue helicopter appeared.
“We made it through the night,” Baughman said with a smile.
Once off the mountain, he was told that his friends had been ordered back to Sasebo -- alive and well. Baughman had frostbite on his feet and spent the night in a hotel.
The next day, he was so sore he could barely move, he said. But he had to hike back to the staging area where they had camped to get his bag with his car keys. The conditions were good, so he kept going.
“It was sort of a grudge match,” he said. “Me and the mountain had a score to settle.”
Baughman reached the summit.
“I felt like the mountain was letting me climb it,” Baughman said with a smile.
The Japanese man was flown to a hospital in Kanagawa prefecture, where he is recovering from fractured legs and frostbite, according to a spokesman for Shizuoka prefectural police in Gotenba.
Baughman’s toes should be back to normal in six months, he was told. He returned to the U.S. on Monday.
The trio’s superiors in Sasebo were not surprised by the men’s heroic exploits.
“Knowing how strong in character they are, they would have done anything they could to try and save someone,” said Lt. Garrett Pankow.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.
A week before heading back to the states and civilian life, Petty Officer 1st Class Corey Baughman, of Explosive Ordinance Disposal Mobile Unit 5, Detachment 51, was to climb Mt. Fuji on Dec. 9-12, 2011, as a way of saying goodbye to his friends. Baughman's efforts helped a climber who had fallen fight off shock and certain death. The man was rescued the next day.
PHOTO COURTESY OF COREY BAUGHMAN