Rescue on Denali
The inside story from Rescue Ranger Scott Darsney

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With some of the worst weather in memory, June 1998 was a memorable one on Alaska's Denali, also known as Mount McKinley. But for those who were actually on the highest mountain in North America, the thing that stands out was the incredible rescues.

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.

Scott Darsney
© Luna Films

This is Scott Darsney with the Third Ranger Patrol checking in again. Here are the names of all the people who helped out in the rescue whose names were overlooked or were never mentioned. These are people that are on the National Park Service Staff first: Ranger Daryl Miller, Ranger Billy Shott, Ranger Roger Robinson, who is the head of our patrol, Dave Kreutzner, Miriam Valentine, Punky Moore, Meg Purdue, Ranger Eric Martin and Jim Hood, who is the Lama pilot.

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.

"The minute we opened up an exposed muscle on someone the syringe would freeze ..."
What happened on the mountain is roughly at 2am, I'm not going to give dates — Johnny Johnson, who is a Scottish fellow with the British team, had come running down the West Rib and woke me up in the medical tent at about 2am. He informed me that three of his mates had fallen just below the Football Field on the West Ridge and were up there injured. In his process of coming down he had seen two American climbers fall and come to a resting place at about 16,000 feet on the West Rib; they had fallen on the Orient Express.

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.

"The two Americans were not moving and as far as we knew they were unconscious..."
At that time more people came out to help out and get the rest of crew in the medical tent where we worked on Jeff, who was the most critical, for quite awhile. Jeff had some apparent head trauma, a closed head injury and we were there for about 36 hours. Several people helped out, especially, Michael Dong and Dudley Weider as well as Dr. David Moon and our team, keeping Jeff going. He was unconscious the whole time and responded only to (painful stimuli) and we needed to get Jeff choppered out.

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.




It wasn't a half hour after we finished up with that rescue, and were about to open up a bottle of champagne, when Steve Hanson came running up. He had seen two people falling, which we assumed were the British team, down the Orient Express and landed in the same spot as Billy and Jeff. We then ran up there, not exactly ran up, but again carefully mobilized two rescue teams in the same two litters and went and brought down Justin Featherstone and Steven Brown and brought them into the tents.

"He flew around to get rid of fuel because this, the highest attempt at a short-haul in the world, was a record altitude..."
Billy, at this point, his injuries were such that he could kind of get around on his own and didn't need any real acute medical care. We got Justin first, who was the worse off with a fractured fibula and ankle, and he was in quite a bit of pain. We had run out of a lot of the pain medications, a lot of them had frozen on the way up to the rescue. I had to keep putting the needle in my teeth to keep it warm; the minute we opened up an exposed muscle on someone to zap them with some morphine, the syringe would freeze in the just a few seconds it took. It was rather cold early in the morning. We then stabilized Justin and Steven and re-warmed Steven's fingers which were frostbitten.

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.

"We didn't even know that they were alive until Jay Hudson had flown by and seen them standing up and waving..."
We then had those guys for most of the day until the evening time. The Army was able to bring in two Chinook helicopters and land them at 14,000 feet and we evacuated Justin, Steven and Billy and also a person who had developed high altitude pulmonary edema from Scott Woolems' team at the same time and flew them out on the chopper. We also got some badly needed medical supplies. Things were going fast and furious up there, it was kind of like a M.A.S.H. unit at times.

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.





"Steven [Brown] seemed to have nine lives and he used up four of them, he took about four tumbles on the mountain..."
It was at that time we decided to mobilize a morning rescue provided they were still alive and healthy. The Lama was able to get the pack to them, we got radio communication, we found out that they were well, their toes were cold, they were a little hypothermic, but they were very coherent, they still would be able to work carabiners and climbing harnesses. The next thing we did was rig two suits called screamer suits, which is like a full body harness, almost like a duffel bag with holes in it for your arms and three big rings that you attach carabiners to. We then rigged these up in a small stuff sack dangling below a short-haul rope on the Lama helicopter at about 100 feet down.

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 had these two tiki torches we had brought up for kind of a joke Hawaiian luau up at 14,000..."
While the chopper is flying around getting rid of fuel, we then got the short-haul rope ready to pick up Spooner and Bougard who would had then attached themselves to the screamer suits. They were waiting with the screamer suits and we told them to leave all gear behind, there would be very little weight left to do anything here. Then the Lama came up and made a pass after about five minutes of hovering and in very still winds, luckily. The two were able to clip into the screamer suits. The Lama then took off and gave them the thrill of their lifetime — flying around with about 16,000 feet of open air below them — and then deposited them into the 14,000 foot camp, gently lowering the short-haul rope with Bougard and Spooner attached and brought them down to the snow.

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.

"I had to keep putting the needle in my teeth to keep it warm..."
So then what we did, the Lama came back in, it's probably about 3 o'clock in the morning now, we put Spooner and Bougard on the Lama and the Lama took off out of sight and went to Talkeetna where there was a Life Flight jet waiting to take them to Providence Hospital.

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
All photos: Scott Darsney, Mountainworld Images

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