Rescue on Denali|
The inside story from Rescue Ranger Scott Darsney
The unbelievable and somewhat ironic events that led to the highest elevation short-haul rescue ever began to unfold on the 20,320 foot mountain on Thursday evening, June 18 when three members of a nine-member British team at 19,000' fell 300 feet.
Seven hours later, during their descent to get help, two of these British climbers came across the seriously injured two-member American team who had fallen about an hour before. So it was nearly 2am on June 19 when rangers at the 14,200' camp received their first call to arms. Two patrols of rescue personnel were dispatched to aid the fallen Americans as it was at that time impossible to reach the British team. It took eight hours to lower the two men and another day to stabilize them. One-half hour after they were choppered off the mountain, when the champagne was about to be uncorked, a ranger witnessed the 1500 foot fall of two other British team members who had begun to descend the night before. And this wasn't the end.
Scott Darsney has been climbing for 20 years. A resident of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Darsney has been guiding with Alaska Denali Guiding for five years. Much like on-call firefighters, Darsney, an Everest veteran, and other "volunteer" rescue rangers are ready and waiting to assist on the mountain. This is his account of what happened over those nearly four harrowing days.
Also for ground support at 14,000 feet, helping with the lowerings and helping stamp out runways and what have you, we have, on the Ranger Patrol group: Roger Robinson, Liz Green, Pete Athans, Joel Geisendorfer and myself, Scott Darsney, which were the Third Patrol.
Then for all the people who helped, a lot of them guides on the mountain, we have: Chris Morris, Michael Dong, Les Lloyd, Wes Bunch, Dr. Dudley Weider, Doug Chabot, Scott Woolems, Todd Ruttledge, Jeff Evans, Dr. David Moon, Blaine Smith, Jim Williams, Tom Bennett, Karen Hilton and also Steve Hanson.
We would like to thank all those people very, very much that were instrumental in getting all those people down the mountain.
We then mobilized our crew, our rescue crew of five, and then proceeded to go around the 14,000 foot camp to find any guides that were available who could help out. We mobilized a crew, a fast team and a slower team with more gear to go up to the injured. It sounded very serious, the two Americans were not moving and as far as we knew they were unconscious. We got up there after about an hour-and-a-half of mobilization and then about two hours of climbing up the West Rib of the base of the Orient Express.
We got a hold of (the two Americans) Billy Finley and Jeff Munroe who were there. Jeff was in a lot of distress, very labored breathing and we did a very quick assessment on him; got some pads and more sleeping bags on him than what they already had and did an assessment of Billy. About an hour later, oxygen litter came up and we preceded to do two 900 foot lowerings of Jeff followed immediately and at the same time by two 900 foot lowerings of Billy.
That was a critical decision and finally in a daring move Jim Hood came in in fairly inclement weather and flew right around the base of the mountain, not being able to see anything below him and we were able to get Jeff into the Lama. The Lama couldn't re-proceed back to Talkeetna, the Lama then proceeded to Kantishna on the north side of the park where a Pavehawk helicopter picked him up and took him directly to Alaska Regional. It was a good effort there by Jim.
Steven, in the process, got the nickname "el gato" because he seemed to have nine lives and he used up four of them; he took about four tumbles on the mountain. When he recovered with Justin, he had lost his mittens and jacket and had walked on the fall line and unfortunately when you walk on the fall line of the Orient Express, you cannot see upcoming crevasses, especially the way the lighting was, and he popped into a crevasse, clawed his way out of that one rather quickly and, in the process freezing his hands, proceeded down hill again and then popped into another crevasse, which was snow filled in. Luckily, and was able to get out.
He had actually started to climb out of the second crevasse when Doug Chabot's team had gotten to him, the lower one, and realized that Steven was still alive because we had poor hopes of him but actually Steven is recovering quite well now in the hospital.
Then we had a little bit of rest but we still had two British climbers just below 19,000 on the West Rib, about 400 feet below the cornices. They were in open bivouac; they did not make a snow cave; they had one foam pad between them; and no sleeping bags, just bivvy sacks. We then decided to come up with a game plan. What we proceeded to do was start to mobilize a team to leave about 6 o'clock in the morning up the West Rib, as no helicopter support was available. It did turn out that the weather finally started to clear and the Lama made a daring move in with Ranger Daryl Miller who had to be on oxygen because he wasn't acclimatized to 14,000 feet. Then we set Daryl down and we were waiting for a lot of logistics, the Army has a C-130 plane flying overhead as well as a lot of ground support people; all the people back at the park service headquarters in Talkeetna.
At that time we all got together and continued the rescue. It was an idea of Roger Robinson to try to lower, first of all, a rucksack with a radio, a stove, two sleeping bags and a tent and some foam pads; lower it via helicopter to the two climbers so we could get in radio contact with them. We didn't even know that they were alive until Jay Hudson had flown by and seen them standing up and waving their arms and then we could see them from 4,000 feet down below waving their arms, so we were quite pleased about that.
Then right about 2 a.m., at the darkest point in time, we're rigging this line to the bottom of the helicopter. It was very cold and Roger had some frozen carabiners on the bottom of the chopper trying to rig this system at 14,000 feet. We finally got the chopper all rigged and Jim took off. He flew around for a ways to get rid of fuel because this is the highest attempt at a short-haul in the world; this was a record altitude to try this and we didn't want to send one of us up on the short-haul rope.
So, we sent the bag with the two screamer suits up on the short-haul rope and then lowered it to Spooner and Bougard, who were at 19,000 feet talking to him on the radio and also some written instructions and then it's getting very dark now. We needed to light smoke flares for the Lama to return to 14,000. We had no real good way of lighting them, most of our smoke flares were gone but we had these two tiki torches we had brought up for kind of a joke Hawaiian luau up at 14,000. We lit the tiki torches and they provide a lot of smoke, but they were able to get some regular signal flares going to light up the landing zone for the chopper.
We grabbed hold of them, disconnected their 'biners and Jim took immediately off down to re-fuel at 7,000 feet at base camp. Actually, he couldn't go to base camp, the Chinooks had dropped some fuel barrels on the lower Kahiltna Glacier for a re-fueling operation. We put Daryl in the chopper, since he wasn't acclimatized, he went down to base. Then we did an assessment on Spooner and Bougard. Spooner seemed very well, joking all the time, almost joking a little too much. Bougard's feet weren't so great but we only had about 15-20 minutes to do an assessment on them and they were still alive and okay.
We had gotten very little sleep. We finally got to bed at 5am when we got another call, someone having breathing problems. On top of that we had three helicopter evacuations, one person with angina. And there were two people with pulmonary edema just before all these rescues took place. It was a very busy time up there. We never got up to the summit or anything, we were just too busy going up and down the mountain helping folks out but it was quite an interesting time, quite a learning experience. We hope that Jeff gets better soon and everything worked out okay.
This is Scott Darsney reporting from Talkeetna, Alaska
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