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Early on the morning of Thursday, May 12, an exhausted, frostbitten mountaineering guide stumbled into “High Camp” – 17,200 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. The guide and the three clients on his rope team had been descending McKinley’s 20,320-foot summit ridge when they suffered a fall. The guide had left one of his clients lying with a broken leg on the “Football Field,” a snowy flat expanse at around 19,500 feet. The other two clients, who had become separated from the guide during the dark and windy descent, were still missing.
Another climbing team that was at High Camp used a satellite phone to call for help, triggering a rescue mission that would culminate in what has been reported as the highest-elevation helicopter short-haul rescue in the park’s history. The May 12 mission was a remarkable demonstration of skill and teamwork. It was also a testament to the capabilities of the Eurocopter AS350 B3 helicopter that flew the mission – the high-altitude heir to the Aérospatiale SA315 B Lama it replaced in Denali last year.
The High One
Denali – which means “The High One” – is the Koyukon Athabascan name for North America’s highest peak, which was named Mount McKinley in the 1890s in honor of presidential candidate William McKinley. Located in the Alaska Range north of Anchorage, it attracts climbers of varying experience levels from around the world. Last year, 1,222 climbers attempted to reach the summit; 670 succeeded.
The climbing season at Denali typically runs from May to July. In the latter part of the summer, melting snow bridges make travel on the lower glaciers difficult; conversely, anyone who attempts a climb earlier than April runs the risk of being flash frozen – literally – by brutally cold temperatures and jet-stream winds. Even during the climbing season, the weather near the summit can be punishing. On the morning of May 12, temperatures at High Camp were hovering around -25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit) and winds were gusting above 60 knots (70 miles an hour). It was clear that any aerial rescue mission would have to wait until the winds subsided.
The mountaineering guide – who was identified as 56-year-old Dave Staeheli of Wasilla, Alaska – arrived in High Camp around 3:45 a.m. Several hours later, one of his two missing clients was spotted descending the lower portion of the slope known as the “Autobahn.” Members of the other mountaineering team at High Camp went out to assist this climber, 45-year-old Lawrence Cutler of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., who, like Staeheli, was suffering from fatigue and frostbite.
The other missing climber, 38-year-old Beat Niederer of St. Gallen, Switzerland, was reported last seen near “Zebra Rocks” at 18,300 feet, just above Denali Pass. The injured client who had to remain at the Football Field was 40-year-old Jeremiah O’Sullivan of Ballinhassig, Ireland.
Watching From a Distance
Meanwhile, 60 miles away in Talkeetna, TEMSCO Helicopters pilot Andy Hermansky was put on standby. Southeastern-Alaska-based TEMSCO took over the United States National Park Service (NPS) helicopter rescue contract in Denali in 2010, supplying a stripped-down AS350 B3 AStar to fill the high-altitude rescue role that was previously performed by a Lama. Hermansky had also flown the Denali contract for TEMSCO in 2010, so he was familiar with the mountain and the extreme conditions the climbers were facing. At that point, however, details were still sketchy: “It’s rather difficult sometimes to get information on what’s really happening on the mountain,” he told Vertical in an interview.
At 8 a.m., the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard launched a Lockheed HC-130 extended-range, search-and-rescue aircraft from the 211th Rescue Squadron near Anchorage in an effort to locate the injured and missing climbers. The injured O’Sullivan was spotted quickly, and he waved at the airplane from his location on the Football Field. On this initial reconnaissance, however, the National Guard personnel on board the HC-130 were unable to definitively locate the missing Swiss climber, Niederer.
Hermansky was then dispatched to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna base camp, where he remained with supporting personnel Coley Gentzel and Dave Weber until around 2 p.m. By then, the winds were down to about 45 knots, and Hermansky was able to proceed to the mountain’s 14,200-foot camp to join other NPS rescue personnel, including mountaineering rangers Chris Erickson, Kevin Wright, John Loomis and Matt Hendrickson. At approximately 5 p.m., Hermansky was able to make his first reconnaissance flight to the Football Field. “There were winds up there but they weren’t too bad anymore,” he recalled, estimating they had subsided to about 20 to 25 knots. O’Sullivan was sitting up and waving at the helicopter.
After making a detailed reconnaissance from 20,100 feet, Hermansky returned to the 14,200-foot camp, picked up Erickson, and did another reconnaissance flight with the ranger on board, verifying that the helicopter could perform with the additional weight. “I knew at that point I had [enough] power,” Hermansky said. “The winds were very favorable.” Leaving the Football Field, Hermansky and Erickson descended to near Denali Pass to search for Niederer. Although Erickson spotted the climber quickly, he did not observe any signs of life. Niederer was lying on the lee side of a long stretch of rock wall, where the winds were strong and unpredictable. “At that time I was heavy on the fuel,” Hermansky recalled. “I didn’t want to get too close.”
Returning to 14,200 feet, Hermansky told the assembled mountaineering rangers that he wanted to attempt to get O’Sullivan with a rescue basket and no additional personnel on board. “Since he was quite active, I said I’d like to give it a try with a basket first to be on the safe side,” Hermansky explained. He departed camp with a rescue basket at the end of a 150-foot line and a fuel gauge that read around 25 percent. (By Hermansky’s estimates, the B3 burns 29 to 31 gallons an hour at Denali’s high altitudes, compared to the 40 to 50 gallons it burns at lower elevations. Consequently, he said, he had plenty of fuel for the mission: “I didn’t even sweat.”)
Hermansky “took his time” in getting to the Football Field, where he hovered slowly towards the injured climber, benefitting from the steady winds off the nose. “I put the basket right next to him and set it down,” he said. “The guy didn’t do anything for quite some time.” Although there was a radio attached to the basket for communications, O’Sullivan did not appear to respond to transmissions.
Concerned that the climber was delirious or immobile, Hermansky was considering going back for a ranger when O’Sullivan made a sudden move toward the basket. He managed to climb inside “butt-first,” then lifted his broken leg under the knee to haul it inside. When Hermansky was satisfied that the climber was reasonably secure, he descended slowly to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna base camp at a descent rate of about 1,000 feet a minute, a process that took 11 or 12 minutes. A LifeMed helicopter landed at Kahiltna almost simultaneously and transported O’Sullivan to Anchorage for medical treatment.
With Niederer still on the mountain, Hermansky took on some more fuel, then flew back to Denali Pass for another recon of the Swiss climber’s location. After an initial survey, he flew back to 14,200 feet to pick up Kevin Wright, the lightest of the mountaineering rangers on site. With Wright inside the helicopter, he flew a detailed 15- to 20-minute reconnaissance, approaching within feet of Niederer, who, sadly, appeared to be deceased.
Even though the situation now seemed more like a recovery, the Swiss climber would still need to be short-hauled out. “We talked a lot about the power and performance we had in there,” Hermansky recalled. “I knew it would be do-able.”
Hermansky and Wright then returned to camp for their short-haul checks. The plan was for Wright to be attached to the end of a 125-foot line and flown into Niederer’s location to recover the body. Wright had done an operational short-haul mission with Hermansky in 2010, and, like the other mountaineering rangers, had recent short-haul refresher training. “It’s pretty strict in terms of making sure everyone’s on the same page,” Wright said of the training. “We get the whole routine dialed in.”
Although the recovery mission took place at a lower altitude than the rescue, Hermansky said the unfavorable winds and topography actually made it more difficult. Yet it proceeded without incident. In a subsequent phone interview from the 14,200-foot camp, Wright said Hermansky “did a superb job. He set me down incredibly lightly.” While Hermansky was flying with supplemental oxygen, Wright had already been on the mountain and acclimatized for about a week at that point, so he was able to do without. It took only about a minute on the ground for Wright to clip Niederer to the line using the climber’s own harness.
Hermansky flew Wright back to 14,200 feet, then flew Niederer to the Kahiltna base camp, where he was transferred to a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the 52nd Aviation Regiment out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Two NPS ranger medics aboard the Chinook confirmed that Niederer had tragically died on the mountain.
Recognition and Reminders
The day-long search and rescue mission was completed around 7 p.m. (the guide, Staeheli, and the American climber, Cutler, were individually short-hauled out of High Camp by Hermansky and Loomis the following afternoon). Afterward, the rescue of O’Sullivan, which was performed at 19,833 feet, was reported as the highest-altitude helicopter short-haul rescue mission in the history of Denali National Park.
“That sure sounds good,” Hermansky admitted. However, he also suggested that the exact altitude was beside the point: “The most amazing thing was seeing that guy getting into that basket.”
For Denali National Park personnel, the mission confirmed the capabilities of the AS350 B3, which is still relatively new to the job. “This was kind of a test case for us with the AStar,” noted Wright. “It’s a good confirmation that everything worked out.”
Of course, the success of the rescue owed as much to fate and Mother Nature as to the resources and skill of the personnel involved. While the day began with harsh winds, it ended relatively calm and clear. Had the weather been less cooperative, the outcome could have been very different.
“We make a conscious effort not to advertise our [rescue] abilities,” noted Wright. “We talk to every climber who comes up on Denali. We really stress that the rescues may not be able to happen.” It’s a reminder that, on the mountain, triumph and tragedy go hand in hand.