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Dispatches
by Liesl Clark


Deadly Ascent homepage

A Climber Saved

Until last night, it had been three years since the Army's Chinook helicopter had flown into the medical camp at 14,200 feet for a rescue. Some of the world's best climbers were recruited to perform a ground rescue of a 61-year-old Armenian climber who had fallen two days ago from Denali Pass. He had sustained some injuries to his ribs and was unable to walk. For two days high winds left him stranded at High Camp at 17,200 feet, under the watchful care of an Air National Guard PJ (parajumper). There was no chance of a helicopter rescue until the winds subsided, and the patient was growing weaker.

Finally, Chief Mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson made the difficult decision to send up a team of expert climbers to bring the patient down to Dr. Howard Donner at Fourteen Medical. (To see the route up Denali, go to Climb.) And if the weather cleared, a Chinook helicopter would fly in to rescue the climber from the mountain and take him to a hospital in Anchorage.

The list of names that took part in the rescue reflects the elite of American climbing today: Pete Athans, Mark Twight, Joe Reichert, Scott Backes, and Steve House. They climbed up to 17,200 feet in record time, packed the patient into a litter, and painstakingly lowered him along Denali's West Buttress ridgeline between 16,000 and 17,000 feet to the fixed ropes at the top of the Headwall. From there, the rescuers set an anchor, clipped the litter into a 500-foot rope, and began lowering him down the 800-foot Headwall, the steepest part of the West Buttress route.

By the time they reached camp, the rescue had taken on a momentum of its own, as climbers from all over camp joined in the march across the high plateau to where the National Park Service tents stand as the boundary. Donner was in his medical tent readying intravenous fluids, while Ranger Robinson was communicating with the Army Chinook, hoping the clouds would lift for a brief moment to allow them clearance to fly into camp and land.

"From 7,000 feet to the summit, the whole mountain is clear, except for a few clouds here at 14,000," Pete Athans said as he brought the patient in to camp with Twight, Reichert, Backes, and House. If the Chinook were to land, there would be only a brief window of opportunity before the clouds closed back in. The patient was in stable condition, but he needed to get off the mountain to get closer medical attention to the possible fractures to his ribs.

We heard the Chinook minutes before we could see it, framed in a bank of light clouds as snow fell. It's a massive helicopter, and as it approached it filled the sky with its insect-like shape. We had built a landing zone made of bright red body bags to provide visual guidance to the pilot attempting to land in a sea of white. As he lowered toward the spot that John Grunsfeld was indicating with flares, a wall of circling snow 300 feet high welled up in the rotor wash, obscuring the helicopter from view. Minutes later, the patient was carried onto the helicopter by a six-person team, including Donner and Athans.

As the helicopter lifted off, an avalanche of snow created by the rotors blasted the 30 of us attending the rescue. It was like nothing any of us had seen before: in the middle of the night a huge machine broke the silent falling snows by flying in to our remote camp high above the clouds. One more climber had been saved, safely plucked from the sides of Denali through an extraordinary human effort.

Location: Fourteen Medical
Altitude: 14,200 feet
Air Temp: 10°F
Windspeed: 4 mph

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Helicopter

Rescuers carry the patient to the waiting helicopter.

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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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