In the 1980s and ’90s, Greg Bragiel went on several lone backcountry skiing trips in Les Monts Groulx, a mountain range in central Quebec. Years later, he understood how being so uninformed about potential dangers may have cost him his life.
“If I had been injured, unable to walk or ski, or was caught by an avalanche, it’s unlikely that I would have ever been found,” he said. “I thank God and my guardian angel that I returned safely from those trips.”
Those experiences gave him an understanding of how someone can unknowingly put themselves at great risk, which frequently happens in the Alaskan wilderness. As a volunteer with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Bragiel rescues people who are lost, stranded or injured, and recovers those who didn’t survive.
“We’re out there to help others, and it goes way beyond our own personal climbing, skiing or other skills,” Bragiel said. “It’s part of what I do here on earth. I know that part of my job is helping people, and the big picture is that God put all of us on here on earth to know, love and serve him and to help others.”
He’s living the Gospel message with acts of mercy that could put him at risk, too.
Bragiel, 61, has skied most of his life and joined a mountaineering club in 1977. He skied in Colorado and Utah, climbed in Washington and Oregon, and in 1985 climbed in Denali National Park in Alaska. After all that traveling, he decided in 1999 to move from Ohio to Alaska to be near the winter sports that he enjoys. He set up his dental practice in Anchorage, and in 2005, he joined the nonprofit rescue organization.
“I met some friends who were involved, and I was really impressed with their skills and their willingness to help others,” Bragiel said. “People get lost on trails, or they can get hurt any time and we have to go find them. People get caught in avalanches, too.”
Some outdoor adventurers are not properly prepared for the challenges, and others have accidents.
“We are just one of the resources,” Bragiel said. “The police departments have search teams and SWAT teams, and there’s a dog search organization and technical water rescue teams. One area of our technical rescues is on steep snow, ice and rock where you have to be tied to ropes to help somebody. They might be there because they got scared or stuck and they freeze up.”
In one case, a man who was recording wind noises could not get back down a mountainside. “He was above his vehicle just about 150 feet or so,” Bragiel said. “But when you’re stuck, you’re stuck.”
In another rescue, a geologist who was dropped off by helicopter to work around Portage Glacier became stranded when the weather turned bad. Bragiel and other team members were flown by helicopter through poor visibility and wild weather, putting both themselves and the pilot in danger.
“I was praying for myself, for the people I was with, and for the person we were trying to find alive and safe,” he said. “I was making the Sign of the Cross and praying to God and my guardian angel.”
The pilot flew as far he could and dropped off the team to hike the rest of the way. They climbed about 2,000 feet overnight and found the geologist the next day. He was cold but uninjured.
Unfortunately, not all incidents end well. Bragiel has been with several recoveries to retrieve bodies, which he said is “spiritual work” to bring closure.
Bragiel frequently skis and climbs for his own enjoyment, giving him time to pray and to take in the beauty of God’s creation.
“Sometimes I stand on top of a peak, or in front of a mountain range, and I thank God for giving us all this wonderful stuff here on earth,” he said.
Bragiel and his wife Mary Beth are involved with their parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. “It doesn’t scare me that Greg does the rescues,” Mary Beth said. “I pray for him, the others in the group, and those they are going to rescue, but I have faith that God holds us all in his hands.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.