Rescue on Denali – (Mount McKinley – Alaska)

In 2004 Neil McNab and Andy Perkins found and rescued a stranded Korean climber high on Denali (Mount Mckinley) in Alaska.

This is Neil’s story of that rescue.

For the following event both Neil McNab and Andy perkins received the PMI ‘Denali Mountaineer of the year award’ in 2005 and in 2008 the US department of the interiors ‘Medal of Valor’ for Bravery.

Denali rescue.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 1

McNab takes a breather on Denali.

I wake to silence! The gale force wind that has been blasting the upper reaches of the mountain for the past 2 weeks seems to have abated, the constant roar replaced now by an eerie silence. Intrigued, I struggle to free my head and shoulders from the tightly drawn in neck of my sleeping bag and wriggle towards the doorway of the tent to take a look out, maybe today is the day!

We have been sitting around Advanced Base camp on Denali for about 2 weeks now. The clock is ticking and our dreams of attempting the summit by the highly sought after Cassin ridge are rapidly dwindling. After a promising start our ascent of the mountain seems to have slowly ground to a halt.

At the moment after 2 weeks of near non activity, (tent bound baring a few acclimatization trips up the West Buttress and a frustrated severely storm bound attempt of the West Rib), my thoughts are that if we manage to get an attempt at the summit by any route I shall feel extremely lucky. I simply want to do something! Anything! As a self-confessed activity addict, sitting around in the camp all day is bringing me ever closer to madness.

Frozen condensation on the inside of the tent rains down coating everything in the tent with a fine dusting of ice as I struggle to open the zip doorway of the tent and make to peer outside.

It’s still early but at this time of year doesn’t really get dark up here and its deadly quiet out side. I eventually get my head out and squint at the brightness of the snowy world outside.

It’s actually snowing now and there’s really not much to see. I glance around trying to work out how far I can see up the mountain. On any normal day with this weather I’d be thinking about snuggling back up in my bag but today, with the wind having obviously dropped my thoughts are of the summit and home.

A muffled, “how’s it look?” comes from Andy, my team mate wrapped up in his sleeping bag inside the tent and I retreat inside to tell him the good news.

We seem to be the only ones around camp that think today is a good day for the summit and all is quiet as we don our crampons and prepare to head up the steep headwall that leads to the higher camps and upper reaches of the mountain. It’s not the best weather for a summit attempt but to be honest I’ll be happy to just get out of the tent, leave the camp and get some exercise.

As we prepare to leave one of the mountain rangers who we have become friends with (after helping them out with the rescue of an injured climber high on the mountain earlier in our trip) visits our tent.

Having seen our activity and our intentions of moving on up the mountain he informs us of the saga now taking place in the silent storm high above us.

It appears that yesterday, a very storm bound day with gale force winds (in which we retreated from our ill fated attempt to alleviate boredom by climbing the West Rib route) a group of 3 Korean climbers had set out from a high camp for the summit. During their descent in severe conditions one of the group had fallen and had been abandoned somewhere on the upper reaches of the mountain.

After a severely cold night, the fallen climbers chances of survival were going to be slim and with unknown injuries his chances were deemed even slimmer!

On hearing the news we quickly offered our assistance and agreed to take a radio with us so that if we located the fallen climber we could report with news of his where about and condition. A team of 3 Mountain Rangers would be following us up the mountain an hour or so behind.

With our plans now changed, we set off up the mountain at a rapid pace, our long spell at Advanced base camp had helped us acclimatize and we both felt strong as we pushed on into the snowstorm. After a couple of hours we passed through the high camps where we paused to find out more information concerning the location and condition of the fallen climber.

We were now pushing on toward the upper reaches of the mountain closing in on the 6000m mark and climbing through deepening snow on steeper and steeper slopes. The wind had started to pick up again and as we crossed Denali pass we stepped into the full brunt of the storm.

We were now in the general location of the fallen climber and as we continued on our way up the mountain a small dark speck appeared through the blowing white out. With no obvious rock band in the area this dark object could really only be one thing!

As we closed the gap the object began to take form and colour. We had found the Korean climber but things weren’t looking very hopeful!

Images of photos of fallen climbers on Everest sprang to mind as we closed in on the eerie scene before us.
An exposed mummified looking hand poked out of the end of one outstretched sleeve, an open jacket showed signs of severe hyperthermia (were by the body first stores heat in its core sacrificing the outer limbs before a final last ditched bid for survival shoot this waning heat back out making the dying victim feel like they are burning up).
Blood on the slope showed how the climber had fallen from above and come to rest in this exposed location and without his hat his head seemed to have frozen to the icy surface below.

We crouched beside the frozen figure, removing gloves in order to check for any remaining vital signs whilst Andy radioed in our position and discovery.

Things didn’t look good as we carefully moved around the body of the fallen climber checking for any sign of life, then suddenly his eyes blinked open and the urge to live reached out from deep inside waking him from his cold icy coma!
He immediately began to mumble through frozen lips and tried in vain to sit up before once again slipping back within himself, at least now perhaps with the slight reassurance that help was at hand.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 2

The Fallen climber, Mr Cho, wrapped in my duvet jkt.

I struggled out of my down jacket and wrapped him up against the wind, located his missing glove and lay next to him to comfort and shelter him from the wind and falling snow as Andy called in our location and updated news to the 3 rangers following somewhere not to far behind.

After what seemed like an age the three figures appeared through the blowing snow and we signalled them over.
We carefully moved the fallen climber onto a light weight roll out stretcher and tied him in firmly, his backpack now used to bind his feet, his frozen upper body still wrapped in the confines of my down jkt.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 3

The fallen climber is strapped to an emergency stretcher.

We rigged our ropes to this make shift sled and proceeded to drag him across the snowy expanse of the high plateau where he had survived the night, over towards the steep slopes hidden below the sharp ridge of Denali pass, where the real work would begin.

In order to descend to the safety of the high camps below and to our left, we would now need to lower our casualty some 500m down an exposed and steep slope of snow and ice.

Under normal conditions a straight descent would have been favourable followed by a leftward diagonal climb back up to the location of the highest camp. With thick snow falling and poor visibility however it was decided that our best option might be to follow the line of the diagonal ascent directly to the last camp, this necessitating a lower and diagonal pull descent system.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 4

The long process of lowering the stretcher down the steep slopes below Denali pass.

We each flowed into a natural role, one of the rangers (a medic) on the sled looking after our silent casualty, 2 on the direct lower and 2 on the diagonal. The snow was now falling thick and heavy as I grabbed a snow stake, settled my feet and banged it into the steep icy slope to make an anchor and rigged the first diagonal pull.
The stretcher was initially lowered straight down until it passed the next anchor off to the side from where a 2nd rope could start to draw it over on the necessary diagonal.

There was no way we could perform these manoeuvres tied together and so we each took responsibility for our own safety and got on with the task in hand. The weather worsened and the snow continued to fall.

Snow sluffs began to glissade down the slope getting bigger and bigger as the hours ticked by. We had now been on the move for around 12 hours, we were making good progress but the constant effort was definitely taking its toll, sapping our reserves as we continued to repeat the lower and pull system that was by now so familiar.

We continued our system down the slope until the angle started to ease and the high camps came into view. A small team of climbers alerted to our operation by radio now started to climb up towards us to help haul the stretcher across the final slopes to the high camp.
We struggled on as more climbers arrived to lend a hand and draw the stretcher into the camp where a doctor now waited to greet our Korean friend.

As we arrived at the camp we unloaded our frozen cargo into the hands of the doctor and his Korean colleagues who were immensely happy to see him. We hung around long enough to recuperate with a hot drink and then with our tent still waiting far below we continued on our way, through ever deepening snow, down the exposed rocky ridge below and the steep headwall above ABC.

We arrived back at Advanced Base Camp at around 1 or 2am, greeted by the rest of the Rangers team who had some food prepared for us on arrival.

We had been on the move for some 18hours.

The following morning we woke to blue skies and helped with the massive operation to get Mr Cho from the high camp down to ABC. A huge lower down ‘Rescue Gully’ using a 1000m rope, a procedure that involved the assistance of around 60 climbers.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 5

Lowering the stretcher down rescue gully the following morning.

The next day we woke early, the weather was perfect and we climbed quickly to the summit from where we began our long journey home.

The day after the summit as we packed our kit on our backs and began our journey towards the valley a helicopter flew in to airlift the still unconscious Mr Cho off the mountain and he too began his long journey home.

For our part in this event myself, and my climbing partner Andy Perkins received the PMI award of ‘Denali Mountaineers of the year 2004’.

In 2008, some 4 years later we were nominated and awarded by the US department of the interior the ‘Medal of Valor’ for bravery.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 7

Tea and Medals?

Both Andy and myself simply love to climb. Our actions on that day back in Alaska on Denali were completely normal adaptations to the scenario that we were faced with as climbers. To me our actions weren’t heroic we simply followed our natural human instincts to help someone that needed our help.

Neil McNab Denali rescue 6

The reason we climb mountains, beautiful sunset from Denali’s upper reaches!

In today’s society it is all too easy for us to lose sight of these values, to remain ignorant or aloof to those in need, to walk on by as a sceptic or simply not want to get involved

Life on the mountain is a simple one! We have none of the distractions of everyday life and when someone needs your help and you are in a position to assist it is an easy decision to make.

To me, it is those that help out the less fortunate in everyday life that are the real heroes. These are the ones that deserve our admiration and our respect, those that can put others needs before their own, those that by their very nature don’t really need our respect as their natural human values are already far beyond our own.