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Airman in Distress Airlifted off Denali at 19,500 Feet

Aug. 23, 2021 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

Climbing the world's tallest mountains is risky, even for the most experienced mountaineers. To stay safe, you need to know basic wilderness medicine and how to deal with changing weather and high altitudes; and you have to know what the right gear is for every situation. 

That way, when the unexpected happens – like it recently did for an experienced team of mostly Air Force mountaineers climbing Alaska's Denali – you're prepared to keep a challenging situation from getting worse. 

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Three airmen, two veterans and one civilian photographer recently spent nearly three weeks climbing Denali as part of a resiliency-building challenge. When high altitude and bad weather are involved, anything can happen. The group found that out about 800 feet from the mountain's 20,310-foot summit. 

The men were on the 16th day of their trip and had already done the hardest part up a steep route known as the Upper West Rib. It was shortly after midnight, and they had just reached 19,500 feet when one of the climbers collapsed. 

That climber, who said the experience was still raw to him, didn't want to be identified for this story. He said he felt great at the start of the day, but as his body temperature went down in the frigid conditions, he noticed his dexterity and performance were getting worse.

''He was really struggling with coordination and was getting very cold, then collapsed,'' said Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, a fellow climber. 

Five climbers hike up a steep snowy mountain.
Denali Hike
Five members of a team hiking up Alaska's Denali scale a steep snowy slope on their mission to reach the 20,310-foot peak on a trip from May 28-June 15, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210722-O-D0439-060

The sick climber said he was hypothermic. The team was concerned that he might be developing high-altitude cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain, so they quickly set their tent up and gave him dexamethasone, a medication for the condition that they each carried for emergencies.

''I've carried it for over 15 years now, and I've never had to use it,'' Marshall said of the medication. But there's a first time for everything. 

A few of the other men were experiencing injuries from the cold, so they all piled into the small tent together to warm up. They secured the tent from high winds, made a hot drink for the sick climber and melted more water for themselves. 

Some of the men who had satellite communications devices tried to contact the National Park Service and other mountain resources. Their first attempts failed, so Marshall said he left the tent and walked about 15 minutes to get within radio range. That worked. 

''It was amazing to hear their voices,'' he recalled. ''But they only understood half of the words I was saying, so it took quite a lot of back and forth.'' 

The parties agreed to try to wait on a potential rescue until sunrise, but once Marshall returned to the tent, the others informed him that the sick climber had started having trouble breathing. The climber said it felt like he was ''starving for breath,'' something that had never happened to him before.

Assuming he was now suffering from high-altitude pulmonary edema, the team gave him nifedipine to reduce the swelling that was likely happening in his lungs. But they knew they'd reached a critical point. 

''What he was feeling was like he was drowning when he laid down,'' Rob explained of the sick climber's condition. ''That's all I needed to hear. That constitutes a true high-altitude emergency to me.'' 

Two men clad in cold-weather great sit in a tent, one speaking into a radio.
Radio Call
Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall radios to Denali National Park Service rangers to get help for a sick climber during a trip from May 28-June 15, 2021. The climber was airlifted off the mountain at 19,500 feet.
Photo By: Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210722-O-D0439-061

Marshall quickly went back out to call park rangers, who said they would see what they could do. He then went back to the tent where the group continued to tend to the sick climber, who was breathing a little easier thanks to the meds. The climber said he knew panicking would make it worse, so he just focused on slowing down.

''We talked to him a lot, tried to keep him calm. But he's a tough guy,'' Marshall said. ''He knew what was happening.''

After an hour and a half, Marshall called NPS again, which informed him a helicopter crew was a few minutes out. But when the pilot arrived, he knew the extreme altitude – 19,500 feet — limited his flying capabilities, so he left to drop some weight. Twenty minutes later, he was back with a lighter aircraft.

Marshall and a fellow climber, both of whom were experienced in helicopter rescue work, secured the sick climber in a rescue basket that was lowered to them from the small chopper, which didn't have a hoist.  

''They said to leave no exposed skin because they were going to whisk him away under the helicopter,'' Marshall said. ''They just lifted him up and flew him away, down to [7,800] feet in this open-air basket.''

At 7,800 feet, medics were waiting for the sick climber. The helicopter landed, he got inside, then they flew to a Talkeetna, Alaska, where he could be seen by doctors. 

From the initial call to the pickup, the rescue took about three and a half hours. 

''That is phenomenally fast,'' Marshall said. ''It's so fast it blows my mind.'' 

Two men stand near three snow-covered tents on the side of a snow-covered mountain.
Denali Camp
Active-duty and veteran Air Force mountaineers camp at 14,000 feet while climbing Denali in Alaska between May 28-June 15, 2021. Denali is the tallest mountain in North America.
Photo By: Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210722-O-D0439-062

Marshall credited the emergency medications with making the difference in getting his friend safely off the mountain. 

As with most cases of high-altitude pulmonary edema and cerebral edema, the sick climber started to feel better as soon as he reached a normal altitude. A few weeks after the ordeal, he said it took him a little more than a week to fully recover. 

He said his perspective of that day was a bit different from the rest of the men. 

''It was a crazy experience but, perhaps oddly, I was never scared,'' he said via email. ''It was a very serious and dangerous situation, but I was always confident that things were going to be OK.'' 

Six men clad in heavy winter gear pose for a photo on a snowy mountainside.
Climbing Crew
Six mountaineers pose for a photo on the side of Alaska's Denali. From left: Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga, Air Force veteran Wesley Morgan, Air Force Maj. Marshal Klitzke, Air Force veteran Mark Schaffeld and civilian videographer Matt Wheat.
Photo By: Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210722-O-D0439-063

The unidentified climber cited his faith, his confidence in his teammates, and the resources available. 

''The risk went beyond what was safe, and action needed to be taken for sure, but I never felt like my life was threatened,'' he said. ''Had I been surrounded by a different group of fellas, I certainly would have felt differently.''

Since his ordeal, he said he's already climbed a 14,000-foot mountain. 

Inspiring for sure!