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Friendship and strength spell survival after long fall

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published June 13, 2009

Twice Greg Nappi rappelled to the ends of ropes fixed to fragile ice screws twisted into the side of 7,300-foot Bellicose Peak, and with each descent his concern for his missing partner grew.

More than 150 feet above, near where he and Joe Butler had planned to rendezvous at the base of a wall of ice, Nappi had discovered scratches of ice tools on the west face of the mountain above Eklutna Glacier. He'd shouted for Butler then and gotten a response that seemed to come from far, far away.

Nappi knew immediately something was wrong. He didn't know how wrong until he started down off the jumble of rock, ice and snow that rises out of the northwest corner of the Chugach Range.

Almost 200 feet below the tool scratches, Nappi found his second sign of Butler:

An impact crater.

Stuck upright in the snow to either side were Butler's climbing tools, ripped from his hands as his body bounced and hurtled toward a snow-filled couloir.

How much farther Butler had fallen, Nappi could not tell. The 25-year-old climber looked down the couloir and saw nothing but hundreds of feet of snow.

SEPARATE ROUTES

Like many young men, Greg Nappi and Joe Butler gravitated to Alaska in search of adventure. America's last great wilderness still holds the challenges to body and mind that have drawn adventurers west into the wilds of the continent for 200 years.

The two men came from worlds apart. Butler, a red-haired son of the South, hailed from the middle-class suburb of Conyers, Ga., east of Atlanta. A few episodes of the old TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard" were filmed there.

Butler, now 29, left that all behind to stalk the wilderness. By 2003, he was studying outdoor education at Alaska Pacific University.

Nappi grew up in the old Quaker village of Wayne, Pa., now a trendy Philadelphia suburb. His father had him on skis at the age of 3. By his teens, he was an addict and gravitated to Colorado Mountain College.

Both Nappi and Butler started climbing young. Nappi in the Appalachian Mountains. Butler in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As their passion for mountains grew, both sought out bigger and bigger challenges.

The quest steered them north to Alaska, the land with the tallest mountains on the continent. They met for the first time on the Matanuska Glacier, where both were guides. They spent their days leading tourists on ice walks.

After work, with the tourists gone, it was just the two of them. A friendship grew. They began climbing together in their free time. Soon they were planning trips together.

"We try to do a climbing trip together every year," Nappi said.

This year it was an early April outing to a Chugach State Park hut at the head of the Eklutna Valley. The peaks that surround the hut offer a wide variety of ice climbs of varying difficulties.

"We did The Mitre," a 6,651-foot peak to the east of the cabin, Butler said. "That was fun. We played some Risk," the board game.

Then, on April 9, they got up at 5 a.m., made breakfast and headed for Bellicose. They expected a long but uneventful day.

"When we started off, it was looking pretty good," Nappi said, "but then a cloud layer came in. But still, it was beautiful."

The temperature was 5 to 10 degrees. The hiking up the Eklutna Glacier valley to the base of the route was generally easy. Ahead of them beckoned the crux of the climb, a wall of ice and snow rising about 2,500 feet nearly straight up. As the two climbers worked toward it, they chose different routes. Butler stomped up a couloir -- a snow-filled chute on the side of a mountain -- in his crampons. Nappi chose to slip around a ridge to one side of the couloir and march up a ramp of snow. The plan was to meet at the top to start the real climb.

"I got up to the top there, and I didn't see Joe," Nappi said.

THE FALL

To this day, Butler has no idea what happened to him in the couloir. He remembers marching along a pretty mellow surface with his crampons grabbing well. One minute, he was enjoying the hike, he said, and the next he was on the ground and sliding.

"I remember the initial falling but I have no idea of what happened. I remember telling myself, 'You better swing your ax into the ice or there's no chance,' and then I hit the vertical stuff."

From there on, everything goes to black. The next thing Butler remembers is coming to. He took his pack off. He put his coat on. He drank some water.

"Nothing seemed out of the ordinary," he said.

Then he realized he couldn't move his legs.

"I thought I'd broken both of them," he said. "I yelled out to Greg."

Nappi heard the shout from far away.

"The way his voice was, I could tell he was a lot further from where I thought he was," Nappi said.

"He said, 'I think I broke my leg.' That put me in a bit of a panic mode."

Nappi started down, climbing as fast as he could go. Two rappels got him to the impact zone.

"I could tell it was serious then," he said.

He started running downhill, 100 feet, 200 feet, 300 feet. Rescuers later estimated the distance Butler fell and slid at close to 1,000 feet.

It was a long way with no hint of his friend in sight. That's all Nappi knew. "I finally rounded a corner and I saw him," Nappi said. "He was sitting up with his jacket on."

"I remember when he put eyes on me," Butler said. Nappi repeated the same profane word three times.

A trained wilderness first responder, Nappi immediately recognized the fracture of Butler's left femur. The right leg looked like it might be broken too. And a quick exam revealed a busted shoulder.

The injured climber was conscious and at least semi-alert. Nappi splinted the left leg with a snow picket, put Butler in some insulated pants, and started sliding him down the couloir. But it was hopeless.

"He had no control of either leg," Nappi said. "His feet kept getting caught in the snow and it would cause a lot of pain. That's when I decided I had to run back to the cabin."

THE DECISION

Nappi propped Butler up against a backpack and took off. It took 45 minutes to reach the cabin and grab a sled and sleeping bag. It took another hour to get back. Nappi was glad to find Butler still conscious when he returned. Butler said it didn't seem Nappi had been gone long.

"I remember sitting there and getting pelted by rock fall," he said, "but time, I really didn't understand it. I was kind of passing in and out."

Nappi wrestled the injured man into the sleeping bag and lashed him to the sled. Then he started the tedious process of lowering. Often he had to tie the sled off to an ice ax sunk shaft-deep in the snow so he could get below it to wrestle Butler's body over rocks.

Butler tried to help with his one good arm, but couldn't do much.

"I had no power," he said.

The going was tough, Nappi admitted, "but that got us out of the couloir."

By then the weather had begun to turn. Spindrift snow from high on The Mitre was filling the valley. The windchill temperature was worsening. Nappi started to worry about frostbite or hypothermia. He tried to drag Butler to the shelter of the cabin, but it was tough going on the flats down in the valley.

Finally, he decided it was best to get Butler "away from any slope that might avalanche" and into a flat area near the face of the glacier where a helicopter could land. By then, Nappi understood there was no way he was going to rescue Butler on his own.

He would need to get help, but first he would have to shelter the injured man. So Nappi went back to the cabin for more gear.

This time he grabbed a bivouac sack, another sleeping bag, a shelter tent, a reflective thermal blanket, a cooking stove, a pot and some ramen noodles. He fought his way back through ever-worsening weather to Butler.

"The winds were knocking me around a bit," Nappi said. "They just have been up around 45, 50 mph."

But he made it back. He put up the tent and fired the stove. He cooked and made Butler eat the noodles, encouraged him to drink all he could, and said he was going to have to go get help.

"We talked about it," Nappi said. "There were a lot of things running through my mind. I told him I was skiing out. I told him I was getting professionals."

"I don't think I was too much in the discussion," Butler said. He remembers mainly that the ramen tasted good, and that Nappi gave him a hug, and kissed him on the head before leaving.

EXHAUSTION

By then, day had passed into night, and Nappi, who had been up and down the mountain several times after getting up at 5 a.m., was tired. He slogged off on the 12-mile ski from the hut toward a ranger station at the north end of Eklutna Lake in his heavy telemark boots and skis, wishing he had worn something lighter and faster.

It was a long 12 miles.

"I was seeing stuff on the trail all the time, I was so tired," he said.

He reached the ranger cabin at 4 a.m.

"I knocked; I yelled; and then I kicked," he said.

Five kicks later he had the door open and was on the phone dialing 911. He got an Anchorage Police dispatcher and explained what had happened. The police department transferred him to the Anchorage Fire Department. Nappi explained again what had happened. The fire department transferred him to Alaska State Troopers and contacted the Chugiak Fire Department.

"Then they got Ian Thomas," Nappi said.

Thomas is a young Chugach park ranger. He quickly assessed the situation and was soon in the air with a paramedic, James Hales, headed for the ranger cabin.

"When Ian walked in the door, we made eye contact," Nappi said. "His shoulders slumped."

Thomas realized that the people in trouble were old friends of his. They'd all been at APU together. But he knew they'd find Butler exactly where Nappi said he was. Thomas, trooper helicopter pilot Mel Nading and the paramedic headed up Eklutna Lake into a building storm.

ALONE

Back in the tent, Butler was listening to the winds howl. Spindrift snow began blowing under the sides of his shelter. A big gust drove the tent down over its pole. It collapsed around him.

"I got it back up," Butler said. "I was aware of what I had to do. I told myself, 'Seventy-two hours; that's the time limit before you start going crazy.' I figured three days, I could hack it. All in all, I was in pretty good spirits, though the dead of night takes it out of you.

"After Greg left, I remember taking some naps, drinking as much as possible. I snacked some. I remember checking my watch."

And then he heard a helicopter landing in the storm.

Thomas and the paramedic quickly assessed his injuries. They lashed him to a backboard and loaded him in the helicopter.

"All in all, it was quick," Butler said. "Ten minutes and I was at Providence."

He spent three days at the Anchorage medical center. Doctors put a metal rod in his left leg that goes from knee to hip. They put his shoulder back together with a plate and screws. Butler is expected to make a full recovery, though he is still hobbling around with a cane.

"I can walk, for the most part," he said. "It was amazing, the support of the climbing community. Someone was with me at home every day" after he left the hospital. The Bear Tooth Theatrepub, where Butler's wife works, staged a fundraiser to help him pay medical bills; the pub owners matched the donations.

"It was a very good gesture," said Butler, who was uninsured when the accident happened. "I still have a hefty bill to pay."

He vows to climb again.

Nappi, meanwhile, is guiding on Mount McKinley. He was down from one trip in early June and on his way back up for another. He said he can't wait until Butler is well enough to join him in the mountains. He sees what he did to help save a friend as no big deal. He figures he owed Butler.

"Hey, I slept on his couch enough."

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

By CRAIG MEDRED

cmedred@adn.com

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