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Dispatches
by Liesl Clark


Deadly Ascent homepage

Fourteen Medical

Kick steps up with the front points of your crampons, breathe, plant your ice axe on the uphill side of you, and then step up again. From 11,000-foot Camp to Fourteen Medical, this is repeated over and over for hours, through the heat of the day, with frequent rest stops, until you've finally reached 14,200 feet, the most populated campsite on Denali.

Although climbing Denali can feel like a wilderness experience at times, more often you find yourself in the company of many others, roped together and huffing up the steep hills toward the highest point in North America. An international melting pot of climbers, Fourteen Medical offers the most interesting human scene on the mountain. The camp is at its most crowded at this time of year, due to warmer temperatures on the upper mountain.

"We're here to help, but we need to educate," explained Daryl Miller, acting South District Ranger for Denali National Park, when we interviewed him down in Talkeetna before beginning our climb. The camp at 14,200 feet is where the National Park Service has established a medical and mountain rescue presence on Denali. Dr. Howard Donner and Pete Athans are part of the patrol that is here to attend to sick and hurt climbers. As we arrived in camp, Donner was waiting for us, having already tended to a climber with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or HAPE. "We sent him down to 11,000-foot Camp with a bottle of oxygen, and he should improve."

Back in 1982, Dr. Peter Hackett established a medical lab here to study altitude sickness in the many climbers on Denali. "Usually when we conduct research on altitude we have to find volunteers, but here we have willing climbers who have chosen to come here. Those who get sick are happy to have us treat and study them."

Exhausted from our climb up from 11,000 feet, we fell into our tents and fell fast asleep. But at 2:00 a.m., I heard Donner's voice outside my tent trying to wake Hackett: "We have a patient between 16,200 and 17,000 feet on the fixed lines, he's been complaining of abdominal pains, and he could be hypothermic."

Within half an hour, Colby Coombs, our expedition leader, and Donner, were dressed and ready for climbing up to 16,200 feet to meet the patient. He had been brought there by two climbers who had placed him into a litter for lowering down to 14,000 feet. The stricken climber had a strong pulse and was responsive, but was not able to walk on his own.

Hours later, the patient, who we learned was from Hong Kong, was carried into camp by a team of 10 climbers. It takes a lot of power to carry a person down from high altitude, even when you have gravity working for you. John Grunsfeld offered a thermister pill for Donner and Hackett to test the patient's core body temperature, to verify that he wasn't hypothermic. "A few minutes after swallowing the pill, we were able to see that he was at a healthy 99°F," reported Hackett.

We are still unsure about the final diagnosis, as the climber's abdominal pains disappeared by the time he reached 14,200 feet. Today, 24 hours later, he was able to walk to his team's camp just a few hundred yards away. "He would surely have died if he hadn't been rescued," said Hackett in an interview today. "And he's very lucky he didn't get frostbite."

As the sun begins to set on the peaks below us, another climber is stranded at 17,200 feet, having fallen from Denali Pass and sustained injuries to his ribs and lungs. The winds have been extremely high both here and on the upper mountain, so a rescue is out of the question. Tomorrow, if the weather permits, a team will attempt to go up to attend to him and aid in a high-altitude helicopter rescue.

We power down for the evening. The winds have calmed briefly, as if to give us a moment to catch our breath. We can see a thin layer of clouds miles away, suspended at eye level, mimicking this high cold plateau upon which we are camped, where life very clearly hangs in delicate balance.

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Peter Hackett

Peter Hackett climbing to Fourteen Medical Camp.

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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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