Two weeks on North America's highest mountain with Denali's search and rescue team.
By Ian Shive
Talkeetna, Alaska is a stunningly rugged frontier town that serves as the jumping-off point for anyone planning to climb Mt. McKinley, the towering jewel of Denali National Park & Preserve. Walls of the local bars are covered in old photos of climbers flying their country’s flag while standing on the summit. Some of the actual flags are even tacked to the wall as well.
Climbers fresh off the mountain hobble through the dirt streets, easily identifiable by their suntans and raccoon eyes in the shape of polarized goggles. The energy here is high, the anticipation of the mountain overflowing like the Susitna River that runs at the edge of town.
Talkeetna is also home to the national park headquarters that is responsible for coordinating climbers’ trips to Mt. McKinley, and it serves as the base of operations for Denali’s search-and-rescue team. I had the fortune to find myself here in early June, in the middle of climbing season, accepting an invitation to become one of the first photojournalists embedded on the mountain in a patrol. As I walk into the briefing national park headquarters that is room though, the gravity of my own comes into sharp focus. There, a “situation board” reveals the details of a historic rescue only days before my arrival: “Climber calls in from satellite phone. Panicked, foreign, garbled and virtually unintelligible. Climber’s self-diagnosis is his own expiration in approx. 2 hours. Bleeding and can’t see out of one eye.”
These are the first details concerning the fall of solo climber Claude Ratte, a French-Canadian who was hoisted nearly 2,000 feet in what became the highest lift ever recorded on Denali. Ratte didn’t expire—his life was saved in a massive, well-coordinated and seamless rescue at 17,000 feet.
Mt. McKinley is the highest mountain in North America and the centerpiece of Denali National Park. Some members of the mountaineering community consider it more difficult than Mt. Everest. Its rise and bulk are greater than Everest, and in Denali there are no sherpas to carry your gear. You’re responsible for carrying every piece of equipment, which can weigh as much as 100 pounds per person. And compared with McKinley, Everest is downright tropical. The icon of Denali National Park sits at 63 degrees latitude, just beyond the edge of the Arctic Circle, sandwiched between the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, a location that gives the diamond-shaped mountain a deathly moist, maritime climate. The greatly reduced barometric pressure has a direct impact on the percentage of breathable oxygen in the atmosphere; 14,000 feet on McKinley feels like a burning, gasping 18,000 on Everest. Gusting winds at the summit have been known to blow people right off the edge, never to be heard from again. Sudden shifts of cold weather can approach -100 degrees Fahrenheit. At least one climber is known to have been flash-frozen, like a mythological creature that made the mistake of looking Medusa in the eyes.
I’ve joined a search-and-rescue dream team consisting of lead Climbing Ranger John Leonard, three United States Air Force Paramilitary Rescue men—Master Sergeant Paul Nelson, Tech Sergeant Brandon Stuemke, and Staff Sergeant Rocco Pergola—and a cardio-thoracic surgeon specializing in wilderness medicine, Dr. Skeet Glatterer. The paramilitary triad, called PJs (for para-jumpers) have run many rescue missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as recovery efforts after hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake disasters. They’ve dangled out of helicopters to pluck people from freezing Alaskan oceans and come under fire while saving comrades on the battlefield. This trip up the mountain is their “downtime” between deployments. With such an elite force, I can only hope that I won’t be “that guy” on the mountain—the one who slows them all down. With the exception of Leonard, everyone on the team is a “volunteer in the Park” or VIP. Their only pay is a small food stipend; they are driven by the desire to sharpen their skills and extend a hand when it’s needed. Without the man power of these volunteers, says Leonard, no such patrol effort could exist.
Assembling our gear is an adventure in itself. We have layer upon layer of “pro” gear: capilene shirts, snow pants, down parkas, boots that go over our boots, which have yet another layer of insulating boots inside them. Even the water bottles have insulating layers to keep from freezing on the mountain. If you’re a first-time climber, a trip to the local mountaineering outfitter will make you a popular new customer with a nearly $4,000 tab.
After two days of checking and testing the gear that will be our life support on the mountain, each of us finally hauls 100 pounds of technical gear—including layers of silk and nylon, backpacks, jackets, gloves, and, of course, skis—to be loaded into two sardine-can, fixed-wing aircraft with skis mounted to the front. As we sit packed inside the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, with gear jutting out from all ends, there is an undeniable feeling of excitement and anxiety when we make our final descent onto the Kahiltna Glacier base camp, where our journey begins.
In just 50 minutes, our plane’s skis touch down—my first time ever landing on a block of ice. I step out of the plane to see a stunning view of mountains still in their geological infancy. Like an embryonic capsule, thick blankets of snow wrap the peaks and blanket the valleys, occasionally breaking the silence in a massive avalanche, giving birth to newly exposed granite.
The 7,200-foot base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier isn’t your typical national park campground. For starters, the glacier itself is moving a foot per day, like a slow-motion conveyor belt made of snow and ice. Because of the fantastic designs of European climbing gear, everyone is dressed in the brightest colors, as if outfitted for a Las Vegas show. It’s a sight to see: teams of the toughest weathered men standing in skin-tight nylon with oversized boots. Camp is a village crowded with anywhere from 50 to 150 climbers. And despite the bright colors, not everyone’s mood is upbeat.
Buck Tilton, founder of the wilderness Medicine institute, which is now part of the National outdoor leadership school park concessionaire guide-team on McKinley, describes it simply as “a complicated place.” As a long-time Park Service volunteer, Tilton knows this mountain well. “People arrive here full of anticipation,” he says. “Others are just returning from their climb—some have summitted and some have not. This camp is full of emotions.”
The camp—and mountain in general—is a celebrity scene for the outdoor community. “I love coming here. I’ve been coming for 30 years and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to come,” says Ralph Tingey, who has held senior posts in Denali and the Park Service’s regional office in Alaska, and now volunteers at base camp in his retirement. “Base camp is an international mélange of who’s who in the climbing community,” he says, and it starts to show. Word on the mountain is that Peter Hillary, son of the legendary climber Sir Edmund Hillary, just left base camp to begin his journey to the top of North America.
Daryl Miller, the patriarch of McKinley and the lead climbing ranger only weeks from retirement, is also in camp. His demeanor speaks of years of experience that have helped him guide his successor, John Leonard. Deciding who works at a Park Service outpost is not an easy task. The best rangers are climbers long before they don the gray and green uniform, which means they’ve got to bridge the gap between the renegade culture of mountain climbers and the regimented culture of the Park Service.
After a couple days of getting to know the team better and acclimatizing, I prepare myself for a 4 a.m. departure. Traveling in the coldest part of the day—while unpleasant—is the safest approach. Snow bridges that cover the deep crevasses on the glacier will be frozen solid, making them safer to cross than they would be under the mid-day sun. The glacier we are traveling on is a mile deep—so deep that when something falls in a crack, we don’t hear it hit bottom. As an extra precaution, we slap on skis instead of attaching crampons to our boots; this helps disperse our weight and make a fall less likely. In addition, we are all roped together in teams of three. I am in the middle—a human yo-yo with two strings pulling me in opposite directions. For the next five hours we’ll cover more than five miles like this, with a gradual gain of 800 feet. As the rising sun begins its ascent, we soon realize that we’re shrouded in clouds. It’s like being inside a ping-pong ball: no horizon line in front of you, no color in the sky above you, and no texture below you. Everything is blinding white, even through the lenses of your polarized sunglasses. The only thing that provides any perspective is the person in front of you. Within an hour, I’m lulled into the zen-like rhythm of our movement, and it’s all I need to keep going.
We make camp by noon, the hottest part of the day. The sun begins to break through the clouds and quickly turns the white glacier into a gigantic solar panel. The heat from the snow is unrelenting and unavoidable. Even standing still, I break a sweat. Above 13,000 feet, the ultraviolet index will be nearly 300 percent higher than at sea level due to the reduced atmosphere. One foreign climber passing through said it best: “I never thought the coldest place in the world could also be the hottest.”
The next five days all blend into one another, with moments of blinding snow and varying degrees of coldness that give way to sweltering heat. Our climbs become more difficult as our elevation gains increase to 3,000 feet per day, a pace we will maintain until we hit the 14,200-foot medical base camp. The weight of my pack and sled seem to be conspiring against my success with every step I take.
In the evenings, I listen to stories of yet another world foreign to me. Stories from the PJs, of rescue missions in the Alaskan back country and daily life in Iraq. In the abundant downtime, Pergola and Stuemke read books about the military. Our unusually sunny afternoons are spent dodging the heat under tents. It seems a contradiction to avoid the sun while we take turns melting snow to make drinking water.
During this time, I also get to know Lead Climbing Ranger John Leonard better. Even in a blinding snow, his green Park Service hat and jacket form a silhouette that is unmistakably that of a park ranger. As we pass climbers coming down the hill, many pay Leonard compliments for the cleanliness of the mountain. It is, in fact, spotless. Even the errant Power Bar wrapper gets scooped up as Leonard skis uphill. To him, keeping the mountain clean is priority one. “We manage Mt. McKinley first as a national park,” says Leonard, “and that means resource protection is the first priority.”
Picking up the trash may not seem like a massive challenge compared with the daunting effort to climb up McKinley, but other mountains, such as Everest, are a step away from being classified as the world’s highest landfills. The globe’s most impressive mountains are littered with empty oxygen containers, waste bags, meal packs, and anything else people can ditch to cut weight on their climb. From base to summit, McKinley is covered only in footprints.
After five days of climbing, we finally make our approach to an area known as “windy corner,” the homestretch on our journey to medical base camp. At 13,500 feet, it’s hard to grasp just how high we are, but Tech Sergeant Brandon Stuemke put it in perspective when he told us the planes he parachutes out of are capped at 13,000 feet. We’re walking around in the snow much higher than that.
On this mountain, as on any other mountain worth climbing, it’s not the cold you fear most, but the lack of breathable air. The altitude wreaks havoc on the human system. Above 10,000 feet your body loses fluids faster, you struggle to get enough oxygen, and your sleep is disturbed (in a sugar-plum fairy sort of way). Above 16,500 you deteriorate faster physically, mentally, and emotionally.
At the lower levels, the thin atmosphere is responsible for a variety of aches and pains ranging from a splitting headache and lightheadedness (acute mountain sickness) to pulmonary edema and cerebral edema—in layman’s terms, your lungs begin to fill with fluid and your brain swells inside your skull. The only cure is immediate descent, though some medications can help stabilize a patient until descent is possible. The other result of oxygen deprivation is an impaired ability to make decisions. Best friends can turn on each other and decisions that would seem catastrophic at sea level start to look like good ideas at elevation.
The worst part of these O2 afflictions is it’s impossible to determine who is most susceptible. It’s the Russian roulette of the climbing world— the most unlikely climber could ascend to the summit with no problems while a world-class athlete could require an emergency evacuation. There are no tests you can take to predetermine your vulnerability and no training you can do to prevent it. The one true test is the mountain itself.
And that test is a big part of the draw for the members of my patrol team. Nelson had returned from Afghanistan only two weeks before heading to McKnley. Although Leonard is undoubtedly our patrol’s leader, Nelson is clearly second-incommand. When he isn’t enjoying a good laugh or a plug of tobacco his bottom lip, his years of experience in rescue operations and managing a team are obvious. Even under stress, Nelson guides all of us with knowledge and ease. Despite his demeanor, he regards the job as “boredom with moments of sheer terror.”
When we arrive in 14k camp, I meet Phil Ershler, a record-setting climber turned mountain guide for Alaska Mountaineer School/International Mountain Guides. Ershler and his wife were the first couple to stand on all seven summits, later retold in their popular book Together on Top of the World.
Ershler had two differing thoughts about the strong Park Service presence on McKinley. “They do an incredible job of education, protecting resources and saving life and limb of mountain climbers.” But, he adds, “The flip side is climbers tend to be less self-sufficient.”
It’s a concern that Lead Climbing Ranger Leonard recognizes. In the in hope of creating more self-sufficient climbers, the Park Service won’t treat blisters or minor injuries that climbers can and should treat themselves. It’s also a well-known fact that the Park Service manages the mountain first and climbers second. Even in the event of life-threatening emergencies, the patrol team’s response is measured. “Someone else’s emergency is not our emergency,” says Leonard. “Our safety is the first priority—we won’t put our own lives at risk to rescue those in danger.”
Climbing on Denali, as on all big mountains, has increased exponentially. In 1968, only 40 people attempted the summit and ten made it. Each year since, those numbers have nearly doubled. By 1988, the figure had jumped to 916 climbers, with 551 reaching the top. In 2008, I was one of 1,240 people on the mountain. Leonard refers to it as a “big game” type of experience, for people who have a lot of money and want the proverbial trophy on their wall. At 14k camp we caught up with Peter Hillary who explained another possible reason for mountain climbing’s rise in popularity. “There was a time when flying across an ocean was a major achievement. It was difficult—you might get lost and not come back,” he says. “Today, we fly across the oceans daily, it looks easy. With climbing, it’s the same. People read about or see the hundreds of climbers attempting peaks and they think it’s easy because so many before them have done it.”
The medical camp had an easy go at first with a few complaints of gastrointestinal distress and lightheadedness. After nearly a week and the first few cases of frostbite, the first serious emergency came up. It was 9:30 p.m., when the voice of an English speaking man with a Russian accent came across the Park service radio frequency. A team of Russian climbers at the top of the fixed lines at 16,500 feet had come across a sick climber unable to descend to 14k camp on his own. They offered to help lower him on their own while the Park Service patrol team immediately mobilized into rescue mode. This was the real thing.
With crampons on their boots and climbing and rescue gear harnessed up, the team began ascending to meet the sick climber. No ascent is fast at this elevation—even after acclimation, you still gasp for air with every step. As we neared the patient, his skin looked waxy and he wasn’t moving.
The team confirms that the climber is still breathing, and indicates that he’s not in serious danger, but he requires extensive treatment and evaluation. The team lowers the man to the heated medical tent and immediately tap an IV to begin rehydration while he’s administered bottled oxygen and warmed in a sleeping bag. After a few hours, he comes around, and even smiles. He spends the night in the medical tent under the watch of Dr. Glatterer.
But the next morning, the patient is taken off oxygen and his blood-oxygen saturation immediately drops to abnormally low levels—a dangerous sign of a more serious problem that can’t be fully diagnosed at this facility. The patient will be unable to hike off the mountain and will require evacuation by helicopter.
For the next two days, the patient stays on oxygen and waits for the weather to clear so that the high-altitude helicopter—the Denali Lama— can evacuate him to Talkeetna for base camp with the team, my time on the mountain is nearly up, and it makes more sense for me to hitch a ride on the lama. At the end of the third day, the river of clouds below us begins to dissipate, finally allowing the helicopter to land.
With rotors at full blaze, the oversized dragonfly lands on a makeshift pad, red smoke from signal flares mixing with snow and ice. The search-and-rescue team moves with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew, loading the patient and gear into the helicopter, as I step onto the Lama myself. In less than 60 seconds, the door is closed and I’m looking through the window and waving goodbye to the team below, huddled together for protection.
Fifty minutes later, we’re back in Talkeetna. A medical team meets the escorts him to a regional aircraft for transfer to a hospital, and that is the last I hear of him. I’m left standing in a parking lot in 80-degree weather dressed in a down parka, climbing boots and harness, sweating and more than a little disoriented. For some reason, the first thought that hits me is what Sergeant Master Paul Nelson said before we left for the mountain: “What doesn’t make sense down here, starts to make sense up there.” Of course, he was referring to the way extreme altitudes can affect a climber’s reasoning, but as I stood there watching a midnight sunset, I realized he was right in more ways than one.
Join photojournalist Ian Shive on Mt. McKinley by watching this stunning photofilm.