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Daring rescue on Mt. McKinley

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 12, 2011

UPDATED: An injured climber stranded 19,500 feet on Mount McKinley was rescued late Thursday and flown to Anchorage for medical treatment, while the body of a second climber located above 18,000 feet was recovered by National Park Service mountaineers, according to an NPS statement.

Sometime Thursday evening, after a day of gusty winds that had hindered rescue efforts, a helicopter was able to fly up to the injured climber, who had suffered a broken leg after falling from a ridge near McKinley's summit. A rescue basket was lowered and the stranded climber was able to maneuver inside of it, helicopter hovering overhead, Park Service spokesperson Maureen McLaughlin said.

During this rescue, park personnel were able to pinpoint the location of the second climber, perhaps 1,000 feet farther down the mountain.

The injured climber was flown about 2,300 feet down the mountain, to Kahiltna Basecamp, before the helicopter returned for the second person, McLaughlin said.

Park mountaineer Kevin Wright was lowered from the helicopter on the end of a 125-foot line, McLaughlin said, "set down adjacent to the climber and buckled him into a canvas sling known as a 'screamer suit' and the helicopter again headed for Kahiltna Basecamp.

"The climber was flown on the end of the shorthaul line … and showed no obvious signs of life during the shorthaul flight," the statement said.

At Kahiltna, the victim was transferred to an Army Chinook helicopter from Fort Wainwright. Two NPS ranger medics aboard confirmed that the climber had died.

Cause of death remained unknown early Friday.

Two other climbers who had been part of a four-person rope team that fell near McKinley's summit ridge sometime late Wednesday remained at Kahiltna Basecamp, officials said. (Story by Eric Christopher Adams)

ORIGINAL STORY:

By Craig Medred

As the winds raged over North America's tallest mountain on Thursday, a difficult rescue was being planned in the tiny, roadside Alaska community of Talkeetna where members of the National Park Service, the Alaska Air National Guard and the U.S. Army were trying to figure out how to reach two climbers stranded near the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley.

The Park Service's Maureen McClaughlin reported a rope team with a guide and three clients fell while descending the summit ridge "very late on Wednesday or early on Thursday,'' she said. The guide and one of the clients were later able to make it into high camp at 17,200 feet, where they were helped by other mountaineers.

Left behind on the mountain were an injured client the guide had tucked into the safety of an emergency shelter, and another client who had gone missing in the cold, thin, and windy air.

The descent from the 20,320-foot summit of McKinley does not present particularly difficult climbing, but it is recognized as especially dangerous because of fatigue and inattention. It is a natural reaction for climbers to let down their guard a bit after the excitement of reaching the summit, and that can prove dangerous as it has many times in the past and apparently did again.

"Although many details are unavailable at this time,'' McLaughlin said, "what is known is that one of the clients suffered a broken leg in the fall. The guide sent the two uninjured climbers down to the 17,200-foot camp while attending to the injured client. The guide was able to move the injured client down to a flat expanse at 19,500-feet known as the Football Field and secure the individual in a bivy sack, or light sleeping bag. "

A bivy sack -- or bivouac sack -- is an uninsulated, sleeping-bag-like sack usually made of Gore-Tex to protect someone sleeping in the snow from getting soaked from the melt caused by their body. It was unclear as to whether the guide and clients were carrying a bivy sack, a light sleeping bag or both. Guides sometimes pack both for emergencies.

After making sure the client was at least temporarily safe, secure and uninjured, the guide headed for high camp at 17,200 feet. He arrived there to find the two clients sent down the mountain earlier missing.

The Park Service said it first learned of this shortly after 3:45 a.m. The guide contacted other climbers at high camp asking for help. A climbing party equipped with a satellite phone subsequently called 911.

"They then tended to the guide who had frostbitten hands and feet, as well as a suspected broken rib incurred during another fall near 18,000 feet,'' according to McLaughlin, who reported that a couple of hours after the guide arrived in camp, one of the two uninjured clients was spotted descending toward high camp on the lower portion of a slope known as the Autobahn.

The Autobahn is so named because of the many climbers who have gone sliding to their deaths at high speed there. Upon spotting the man on the Autobahn, other climbers in the 17,200-foot camp hurried out to meet him and make sure he made it in safely. He was in camp Thursday, but was reported to be suffering from frostbitten hands and feet.

The whereabouts of the other client was unknown. He was reported to have last been seen near Zebra Rocks at 18,300 feet. That is just about above Denali Pass. A National Guard HC-130 aircraft from the 211th Rescue Squadron Thursday tried to spot the missing climber, but were unsure as to whether he had been located.

The injured climber, however, was located at 19,500 feet. He was spotted waving at the search plane. Pararescuemen thought they might have seen the other client near 18,300 feet, but that sighting was not confirmed.

Skies over the mountain were clear, but the wind was gusting to 70 mph, and temperatures were 10 to 20 degrees below zero. That is enough to push the wind-chill to 60-below and colder. Exposed flesh freezes almost instantly in those sorts of conditions.

Getting to the injured and lost climbers was shaping up to be a monumental task. Denali National Park and Preserve stages a high altitude A-Star B3 helicopter in Talkeetna during the climbing season, but it cannot fly in the winds now pounding the mountain. It was early Thursday that the chopper flew to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna base camp to wait for a break in the weather.

While staged there, it was able to evacuate another climber from the medical camp at 14,200 feet on the mountain. A client from the same expedition in trouble at 17,200, he had been escorted back to 14,200 by a second guide in order to have his frostbite treated.

Park Service officials were hoping for the winds to back down Thursday evening. Rangers and the pararescue specialists from the National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron are highly skilled in high-altitude rescue and evacuation, but the Pavehawk helicopters operated by the pilots of the 211th Rescue Squadron cannot fly at such high altitudes.

For that reason, National Guard Major Guy Hayes said the Guard had reached out to the U.S. Army at Ft. Wainwright, which operates CH-47 Chinook specially outfitted for high-altitude operations. They were staging in Talkeetna Thursday evening. The Chinooks can fly in higher winds than the Park Service's A-Star.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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