Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Dispatches
by Liesl Clark


Deadly Ascent homepage

Midnight Rescue

We thought it was a classic case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). On Saturday, a 41-year-old climber at 13,600 feet was coughing up pink sputum, having trouble breathing, and his blood oxygen saturation was 66. If he didn't get supplemental oxygen soon, he would die. A mountaineering park ranger climbed down with bottled oxygen to meet the climber, and a helicopter rescue was set into motion.

"It sounds like he could have HAPE, so he should be brought down to 7,200 feet as soon as possible," said Dr. Peter Hackett over the radio to the Denali National Park rescue personnel monitoring the airwaves. Daryl Miller, the South District Ranger, was on the other end of the radio in Talkeetna, where a high-altitude rescue helicopter called the Denali Lama is based.

The next step was to get the sick climber, who hailed from Washington State, down to a flat site where the Lama could land, pick him up, and fly him down to where we were, at Base Camp. There, Dr. Hackett would assess his condition.

"On oxygen, his blood oxygen saturation is now at 92," crackled the radio. For Hackett, this was a surprise, as a HAPE victim should take longer to reach normal levels of oxygenation in the blood. A measurement of 100 percent is normal for sea level, and 80s and low 90s are expected at higher elevations. When the percentage drops below 70, supplemental oxygen or a rapid descent is essential for survival.

We heard the Lama echoing in the mountains minutes before it arrived, and although it was midnight, we could easily see the Lama's approach to the snow-covered airstrip. Inside, pilot Jim Hood maneuvered his craft with precision. It was a perfect night for a rescue: the air was still with just a few light clouds hanging listlessly against the surrounding peaks.

Hackett and Denali National Park Ranger Scott Metcalf helped the climber out of the Lama. He stumbled forward, mostly from the force of a gut-wrenching cough. Inside the Park Service's tent, Hackett listened for signs of edema in the climber's lungs, but found none. What had initially appeared to be HAPE now looked much more like a bronchial complication caused by a mucus block, a problem that occurs often at altitude. "If he had stayed up there, he would have died," Hackett made clear. We could see the relief in the climber's face.

The stricken climber left by another helicopter, a Pavehawk piloted by the Alaska Air National Guard that would land at a hospital in Anchorage. As they lifted off into the night, a life had been saved and the air grew silent as we trudged back toward our tents with Hackett lagging behind. But not for long.

"Another climber, a woman at 17,200 feet may have HAPE," he yelled up to me, ducking into the Park Service's tent.

Location: Ski Hill Camp
Altitude: 7,800 feet
Air Temp: 36°F
Windspeed: 4 mph

Back to top

Pavehawk helicopter

A Pavehawk helicopter piloted by the Alaska Air National Guard sets down on Kahiltna base to shuttle the climber to an Anchorage hospital. [See video]

Enlarge this image


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".



Send Feedback Image Credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site