Monday, January 8, 2007

Part 3 of Denali Series

I had just eased myself into that sweet, warm cocoon of a bag, ignoring the smells that always waft themselves up and out as the bag is entered, when I heard a voice approaching.
“Jeff......Chris.......Morris.......Where you camped Evans?”

I quickly recognized the voice being that of Roger Robinson, the head of the NPS Search and Rescue patrol at the 14,000 ft camp. After Roger located our tent he calmly explained the situation.

“We’ve got a couple of climbers that were witnessed falling down the Orient Express. We’ve got ‘em in the scope and it doesn’t look like there’s any movement. We’re short on Rangers and need a hand. Would you guys be willing to suit up and climb?”

Chris and I had ventured over to the NPS yurt earlier that day to chat and greet. We were well acquainted with the NPS boys. For the previous two climbing seasons I had been a volunteer ranger at the NPS basecamp at 7,000 ft, assisting with multiple helicopter and ground rescues. I was familiar with the procedures and the staff.

Although Chris and I were actually “on the clock” with our clients, it is part of the unwritten creed as a mountaineer that you will make yourself available in any situation to assist in the search and rescue of any fallen climber.

So without a word spoken between Chris and me, we were dressed, geared and out the tent door in 10 minutes.

We were greeted at the NPS yurt by a sense of urgency and confusion. The few Rangers that were staffed at the camp were pulling and sorting gear at a frantic pace. Roger briefed us on the current situation.

“A group of Brits on the West Rib radioed down to say they had witnessed a couple of climbers tumble down the Orient Express...guessing they fell about 2,000 ft. Athens and Timmons are already headed up with meds and oxygen. I’ll rope up with you two...we’ll carry a litter and some other support gear.”

We had seen this exact scenario play out on multiple occasions. The Orient Express was notorious for chewing on climbers, then spitting them out down its 3,000 ft gully. So many Asian climbers have met their fate there, that the gully gleaned its name from their misfortune. It wasn’t that the gully was exceptionally technical; however, it was the perfect cocktail for a long spill. At an average of about 45°, not exceptionally steep in the realm of climbing big mountains, the Express was located just down from the summit, inviting tired and weary climbers down its deceivingly gentle slope. More often than not, the slope was covered with a thin veil of snow, concealing its true character of blue, hard ice.

The oft played out events would have a climber descending the slope, tired, lulled into complacency by the relatively gentle grade. Inevitably the climber would step through the smattering of cushioning snow and onto the slipfest of bullet proof ice. Once the acceleration begins, one can try in vain to slow the fall although this is usually in earnest as the gentle slip turns into a helpless tumble. Chris, Roger and I stuffed, packed and shouldered all the necessary rescue gear, roped up and started up to save the lives of two men we had never met.

To be continued...