Jeremiah O'Sullivan is recovering in a hospital. Denali is shrouded in pearl-gray clouds.
Andy Hermansky is standing in the rain on a gravel helipad in Talkeetna, next to the deceptively fragile-looking $2 million Eurocopter AS -350 BC he used to take O'Sullivan off the mountain.
It looks like there are some other places he might rather be.
Hermansky, an intense Austrian with a close-cropped head of hair, a few days of stubble and the build of a rock climber, is in the middle of his second summer as the National Park Service's Denali rescue pilot, a contract with the Southeast Alaska helicopter service company TESCO.
His duties between the beginning of the climbing season in April and its end in August include reconnaissance flights to locate lost or injured climbers and rescue missions to get them off the mountain.
In his first season in 2010, Hermansky flew 14 rescue and body recovery missions.
2011 has been a busy and grim season on the peak.
So far, there have been eight mountaineering deaths in the Alaska Range, with four on Denali alone. Already Hermansky has taken eight climbers off the mountain, including O'Sullivan's dramatic high-altitude rescue at 19,500 feet, just shy of the 20,350 foot summit.
When news came out that the mission tied a record for the highest-altitude helicopter rescue in North America, the press took notice. Ever since, some stories about the incident have painted Hermansky as a hero and the rescue as a daring, risky feat.
He's wary of doing more interviews because neither of those things is true, he says.
The rangers, he points out, are the ones that spend the entire climbing season hiking up and down the mountain, moving from camp to camp to spot and secure injured climbers. In some cases (but not the O'Sullivan rescue) they are the ones dangling from a 125-foot rope attached to his helicopter, harnessing themselves to climbers too weak or badly hurt to be extricted alone.
It befuddles him that his name is the one that keeps appearing in the news.
"This is not a pilot's story," he says, shaking his head. "This will never be a pilot's story.”"
Still, this pilot does have an extraordinary story. It begins in Hermansky's homeland of Austria.
The pilot's focus and calm under pressure may partly come from his first career as a sniper for the elite Austrian counter-terrorism force EKO-Cobra.
Raised in Vienna, Hermansky enrolled in a law-enforcement academy that led to a 14-year career with EKO-Cobra, where he trained as a sniper as well as a martial-arts expert.
It was not a normal job, he says.
After 14 years, he was ready for a new challenge and hoped for a second career as a helicopter pilot but was swiftly expelled from a training program in Austria.
"I got kicked out," he says. "They said I didn't have what it took.”"
Determined, he moved to America to earn a private helicopter pilot's license, planning to return to Austria afterward.
But after training in Florida ("where the really big mountains are," he notes dryly) he scored a job in California, which eventually led him to one with TESCO in Southeast Alaska.
There he specialized in precise, challenging "external load" flying, where pieces of heavy machinery are hauled to remote destinations through tight, mountainous terrain. Piloting flightseeing tours has never exactly been his bag.
"I like utilizing the helicopter as a tool," he says. "I'm less interested in flying people around. It bores me, I guess.”"
Hermansky's unusual combination of experience with both high-altitude work and external-load flying made him a natural for the Denali contract, says Joe Reichert, the manager of the National Park Service's Denali helicopter program.
"There's not much (high-altitude) helicopter flying done around the world," Reichert said. "And to have a person with keen personal interest in it – that's big.”"
Reichert says that he can describe Hermansky in one word: “Austrian.”