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Dispatches
by Liesl Clark


Deadly Ascent homepage

In June 2000, during NOVA's month-long expedition to study high-altitude effects and sickness while climbing Denali, North America's highest peak, NOVA producer Liesl Clark sent back dispatches and digital images by satellite phone from the expedition's medical camp at 14,200 feet. To relive the expedition, start with the first dispatch below or click on the links below right.

On the Way

"We're flying in an hour."

The words hit with a heavy thump. No matter how prepared you are for a four-week journey to a world of ice and thin air, you're never truly ready to lift off away from your checklists and last-minute trips to the store. We're an expedition of 11: four filmmakers, a doctor, an astronaut, two guides and three extra climbing guides to help us haul our filming and medical technical gear up North America's highest and coldest mountain—20,320-foot Mt. McKinley.

Most climbers call the mountain by its native name, Denali, which means "the great one." We're here to make a film and Web site about extreme cold and how the human body, a fragile organism, maintains its vital organs in adverse conditions. If we didn't have the tools and clothing we have today we wouldn't be able to survive in these kinds of environments. Our story is about the people who come to these places to learn more about how humans survive in the extreme. Denali has been a testing ground for the hypothermia, frostbite, and altitude sickness that occurs in the climbers that come here from all corners of the globe.

Today 500 mountaineers are spread out across the 15.5-mile stretch of trail called the West Buttress, Denali's most popular route to the summit. Our goal is to climb the mountain and chart our body temperatures while tracking the ambient air temperature, windspeed, altitude gain, and barometric pressure throughout the climb. These measurements have never been taken continuously on a climb and we expect to see some interesting results.

As of 5 p.m. half of our team has already flown out of Talkeetna for Base Camp on the Kahiltna glacier at 7,200 feet. I'm feverishly writing this dispatch so I can phone it in on a hard line before our Beaver (a fixed-wing plane) returns to fly the rest of us in.

It'll seat five, and joining me are cameraman Ned Johnston, soundman Thom Pollard, and two of the stars in our film. It's been 11 years since Dr. Peter Hackett has been on Denali. The world's authority on the effects of high altitude, Hackett established a medical lab at Denali's 14,000-foot camp in the 1980s and his research there has furthered our understanding of how humans adapt to high elevations and extreme cold. He's returning to the mountain with us to oversee our temperature studies and to collect blood samples from stricken climbers. He believes he may have found the biochemical cause for altitude sickness, and in six months' time may have an effective medication for prevention. Our film and Web site will follow the results of his study.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld, on the other hand, has come here once before, but only to get a taste of Denali. He spent a few brief nights at Base Camp, and has dreamed of returning one day to climb to the summit. On this climb he's in the best of company with our guides Colby Coombs and Caitlin Palmer.

We're now at the mercy of the weather, watching a lone bald eagle circle casually overhead, while we wait for a break in the clouds to let us slip through to the mountains beyond.

Location: Talkeetna
Altitude: 300 feet above sea level
Air Temp: 54°F
Wind: 5 mph

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climber on Denali

A climber at 16,600 descends Denali.

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".



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