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Dispatches
by Liesl Clark


Deadly Ascent homepage

One Shot Pass

I naively asked why they call it "One Shot Pass" and got a laugh in response. It's the best shot you have for flying a direct route to Kahiltna Base Camp. Our plane lifted up out of the cloud layer, and the three great peaks of the Alaska Range—Foraker, Hunter, and Denali—rose above the moon in full view. Astronaut John Grunsfeld couldn't resist grinning. Next to me sat Dr. Peter Hackett, and although he has climbed Denali eight times, the site of "the great one" from the air visibly moved him.

Our pilot Paul Roderick skirted over One Shot Pass, bringing the plane in low over the crevasse fields of the Kahiltna, the longest glacier in the Alaska Range. We landed on skis in the white powder snow and came to a stop before a snow hill cluttered with tents. Most climbers are on their way up the mountain; the others have returned from their attempts. So far this year, only 18 percent of Denali's 600 climbers have made it to the summit, a very low number for a mountain that boasts a 50 percent chance of success. It has been a cold spring in Alaska. Yesterday, eight climbers with frostbite were flown out to Talkeetna, where Dr. Howard Donner checked them out before sending them on to the Thermal Injury Unit at the Providence Medical Center. Donner, who is volunteering for the Park Service, flew in after us with volunteer mountain rescue climber Pete Athans, who has reached the summit of Everest six times. They are both here as members of the June patrol on Denali, led by Chief Mountaineer Ranger Roger Robinson, a man who has spent over 20 years on the slopes of Denali as a climber and a ranger. The patrol handles all medical and rescue operations on the mountain; all are strong climbers and have been trained to conduct high-altitude medical evacuations by helicopter.

"As you look around here you see a huge expanse of snow, ice, rock, and mountains. This is not a place where people were designed to be," marveled Grunsfeld. "Space is the same: humans were not designed to go into the cold and vacuum of space." Today we filmed Donner, Athans, and Robinson departing for Fourteen Medical, which is a four- to six-day climb. Other than 14,200-foot camp, Kahiltna Base is the only section of the climb up Denali where climbers can walk unroped in an area the size of three football fields. Crevasses are our greatest danger, and no one ventures beyond the probed areas, which are clearly marked with wands. This is a small island of terra firma amidst a sea of deep cracks.

Tomorrow, we move to our next camp up the glacier at 7,800 feet. We leave in the early morning to avoid the heat of the midday sun. With no shade on the glacier, the bright glare from the snow is inescapable, and the heat oppressive. Grunsfeld will begin measuring his core temperature, and we expect to see signs of heat stress. Although Denali is known for its cold, few are warned of the extreme heat a climber endures in Alaska's northern sun.

It is 8:30 p.m., and we're all wearing sunglasses, hats, and bandannas to cover our ears and necks from the sun's burn. All exposed skin must be covered at all times. Now we'll wait for the sun to move behind the mountains to sleep.

Location: Kahiltna Base
Altitude: 7,200 feet
Air Temp: 62°F
Windspeed: 0 mph

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crevasse rescue training

NOVA documents crevasse rescue training on High Definition video using a crane.

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Dispatches

On the Way (06.01.2000)
One Shot Pass (06.02.2000)
Midnight Rescue (06.04.2000)
Across a Glacier (06.05.2000)
Cold Toes (06.07.2000)
Cloud Walkers (06.09.2000)
Fourteen Medical (06.11.2000)
A Climber Saved (06.13.2000)
Lull Before a Storm (06.15.2000)
Frostbite (06.17.2000)
An Unforgiving Mountain (06.19.2000)
Stopped Short (06.20.2000)
A Great Loss (06.20.2000)
Bid for the Summit (06.23.2000)
Summit Reached (06.24.2000)


E-Mail

Set #1 (06.07.2000)
Set #2 (06.08.2000)
Set #3 (06.11.2000)
Set #4 (06.12.2000)
Set #5 (06.21.2000)


Meet the Team

Pete Athans
Colby Coombs
Dr. Howard Donner
John Grunsfeld
Dr. Peter Hackett
Caitlin Palmer



Liesl Clark directed "Deadly Ascent".



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