Polish newlyweds Magdalena Czarnecka and Michael Wangrat landed in Alaska last month ready to kick off their lives together with a yearlong adventure across the continent. Ten days later, the honeymoon was over. Czarnecka lay injured at the bottom of a crevasse on Denali awaiting a rescue that for a time seemed anything but certain.
In Anchorage this week, Czarnecka, 29, recovered from injuries after a 1,000-foot slide from a steep ridge, a fall that easily could have been fatal, according to a National Park Service ranger who helped rescue her.
"It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime," said Wangrat, 34. "And instead of that, we are in the hospital and it's going to be debt of a lifetime."
As they plan their return to Poland, Wangrat said he was inspired by Czarnecka's positivity through the ordeal.
"I have this feeling that, OK, it wasn't time for death now," Czarnecka said.
A match made in mountains
Mountains brought Czarnecka and Wangrat together six years ago as University of Warsaw graduate students. They caught each other's eye on the way to a New Year's Eve outing with a student mountaineering club.
"Our first meeting was on the railway station," Wangrat said. "If it's like love from first sight, it might be that."
Since then, they traveled and climbed as they could afford, embarking on a goal to reach the Seven Summits, the high points on each continent. Together they reached the top of Mount Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua in Argentina. Wangrat proposed last year in Tanzania
at the summit of Kilimanjaro.
"She thought I was kidding," he said.
For a year, the couple worked and saved for their wedding day and travels afterward. After climbing Denali, they intended to hike the Continental Divide Trail from Montana to New Mexico, then hitchhike in Central America. They expected the low-cost adventure to last 10 to 12 months.
"That was the plan, just to have enough money to buy some food from time to time," Wangrat said.
They landed in Alaska on May 10, less than a month after they married in Warsaw. Wangrat's cousin, Marek Paleski, joined them for the Denali climb.
Though the weather had been poor before they arrived at base camp, it improved as they began their ascent. By the time they reached camp at 14,200 feet, good conditions fueled optimism.
"We had some time, according to the weather forecast," Wangrat said. "We had a plan, and we were slightly ahead of the plan."
On May 20, Paleski and Czarnecka left to cache supplies at the 17,200-foot high camp in advance of a summit attempt. Wangrat, who had headaches that day, stayed behind to rest.
"Just when the water was almost ready for dinner, a ranger came and he said that there was an accident and they were involved," he said.
A thousand-foot slide
Paleski led as he and Czarnecka ascended an unforgiving ridge between 16,200 and 17,000 feet. The pair was roped together, but not always clipped into the aluminum pickets placed for protection on that stretch of the West Buttress route.
"We were probably in between two of them and our rope was not long enough to do it," Czarnecka said.
"Maybe we felt too safe and too strong to clip in."
Paleski slipped, Czarnecka said. She hoped to arrest the slide with her ice ax as she had trained to do, but the force was too great when the line went taut. Czarnecka remembers thinking about the terrifying speed she was moving, snow collecting in her nose and mouth, before she lost consciousness.
"He told me after that I was screaming, but I don't remember," she said.
Both climbers slid 1,000 feet, then dropped about 10 feet into a crevasse on Peters Glacier. They came to a stop in a tangle of rope. Dropping into that crevasse likely saved their lives. Just beyond it, the slope dropped more aggressively to a basin far below.
Paleski told Wangrat later that it took about a half-hour before Czarnecka began to murmur and regain consciousness. He unpacked bags and activated a personal locator beacon, triggering an important sign of life, according to park ranger Joseph McBrayer, who was part of the rescue effort that followed.
"That changes our perspective a little bit," McBrayer said. "I think most times if you had someone fall off that ridge, you'd look at it as more of a recovery."
Rangers first got reports of the fall from a guided climbing party that witnessed it, McBrayer said. Though a helicopter launched to assist with the search, wind prevented it from reaching the scene, according to the National Park Service account. Four rangers respond from the ground.
On belay, McBrayer climbed down from the ridge, searching for hours around wind drifts and shouting in hopes of hearing a reply. There was no response.
Searchers finally returned to the 14,200-foot camp to strategize for the following morning. Planning lasted until after 10 p.m, according to ranger Frank Preston.
It was a restless night for Wangrat, who looked repeatedly from his tent, hoping to see a helicopter looking for his wife and cousin. Though he wanted to be part of the search team, he was instructed by rangers to stay put, he said. Preston said the emotional involvement of a family member can cloud judgement that puts others at risk during rescue operations.
In the crevasse, Paleski set up a tent, packing snow around it to block the wind. Pain and dizziness kept Czarnecka from climbing to the ridge under her own power. Having no sleeping bags with them, they lay atop gear and food to insulate from the glacier, distributed chemical hand warmers on their bodies, and huddled close.
A new day
The next morning, McBrayer, Preston and two teams with a total of a dozen rangers and volunteers prepared to leave the 14,200-foot camp to resume the search. The first group soon encountered Paleski, who had made a risky solo retreat in an effort to find help. He gave rangers better information about Czarnecka's location and condition.
After descending from the ridge, McBrayer spotted an unusual green hue at the lip of a crevasse — reflected light off whatever was inside it, he assumed. By then, a National Park Service helicopter had joined the search. The rangers helped direct each other to the spot. Inside the crevasse, Czarnecka waved at the helicopter above.
McBrayer said Czarnecka was in obvious pain when he reached her, but responsive as he prepared her for the airlift, he said. McBrayer packaged her into a "screamer suit" harness to lift her in a semi-seated position. Czarnecka said she tried to peek at the alpine landscape around her through blowing snow as she was carried to the 14,200-foot camp at the end of the short haul line.
At camp, Wangrat was momentarily reunited with Czarnecka as she was placed inside the helicopter for
the trip to Talkeetna. There, another helicopter brought her to Anchorage.
Looking back now, she said she felt no panic.
"I always had a peace inside. I don't know why," she said.
During a four-hour surgery last week, doctors fused bones in Czarnecka's neck and installed rods and a plate on her skull for stabilization. She
has three broken teeth. In the two weeks she's been hospitalized, she enjoyed small victories: regaining her ability to change positions when she sleeps, walking up and down stairs, taking a shower.
"It's not comfortable, of course, but I don't feel any pain," Czarnecka said.
Paleski, their climbing partner, returned to Poland two weeks ago, Wangrat said.
McBrayer, the ranger, returned from duty on Denali on Monday, and was pleased to hear of Czarnecka's progress.
"I think generally if you were to ask any one of my peers, or anyone else in the climbing community, if someone would survive a thousand-foot fall on 40-to50-degree snow and ice, I think they'd probably say no," McBrayer said.
The couple hopes to return to Poland this week. Though their yearlong adventure was cut short, Czarnecka said she's entertaining thoughts of an excursion somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere for when she has healed enough to return to the outdoors.
The first two months of marriage have been a test, they said.
For Czarnecka, she said, it has just reinforced her decision to marry Wangrat. Through the past two weeks, he has slept with his mountain sleeping bag spread across a fold-out chair
"After this trip, we are stronger," she said.