Disaster On Denali.
An Irishman’s fight for survival on North America’s highest peak – Denali.
It is almost two years since I was first in contact with Jerry O’Sullivan, from Ballinhassig, in Co. Cork. At the time Jerry had left a comment on a post I had written about Tom Crean’s epic solo march, in February 1912. It referred to Crean’s rationing of the few pieces of chocolate he had carried, on that trek, and how it had inspired Jerry in 2011, as he lay alone on top of Alaska’s Mount Denali, with a broken leg.
Naturally I was eager to learn more from that intriguing snippet of information, so I contacted Jerry and asked if he would be interested in sharing his story, and he kindly agreed. This is his story.
Disaster on Denali
by Jerry O’Sullivan
In April 2011 my friend Tony and I landed in Anchorage, Alaska for an early season climb of Denali (at the time officially called Mt. McKinley). Standing at 20,320ft Denali is North Americas highest mountain.
We joined the rest of the group which consisted of five Americans, three of whom were guides, and one Swiss climber. We packed up food for a three week trip and following a gear check we drove a few hours to the small town of Talkeetna, which is the last stop for those heading to Denali.
There we registered with the National Park Service, weighed our gear and waited for a weather window, which would allow us to fly into the mountains. A few hours later we and our gear, were loaded on two Beaver turbo-props and on our way over the vast wilderness that is Alaska. Not for the faint hearted. Our plane journey brought us very close to surrounding mountains and through “one shot pass” to our landing site on the soft snow at basecamp, on the Southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. The planes were quickly unloaded and camp set up for the night.
We were at an elevation of 7,200ft and had 3 weeks to attempt the summit and get back to basecamp in time to catch our flight out of the mountains. We were ready.
Over the next two weeks we made our way up the mountain fully loaded with food, personal and group gear in our backpacks and sleds. The approach to dealing with the weight of our gear and the altitude was to “carry and cache” loads at higher elevations during the day and return to camp at lower elevations to sleep. The following day we would move to a higher camp before returning to recover the buried cache. This method along with rest days brought us up the mountain through camps at 7,800ft, 11,200ft, 14,200ft and finally high camp at 17,200ft. We climbed landmarks such as Motorcycle hill and Ski hill and rounded the famous Windy Corner. The scenery was wild, beautiful and pristine as we looked down on the endless surrounding peaks, the most prominent being Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker.
On 8th May after a long tough day we reached high camp. The weather forecast for the next two days was for a high winds but those winds never came. One of the American climbers had left our group to return to base camp a few days earlier. The long climb to high camp took its toll on another so we were left with four climbers and two guides hoping to make the top.
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 began like the previous two days, bright with little wind. It was decided to go for the summit. We left high camp at approximately 10:15 AM in two rope teams. The first section of the climb was over a route known as autobahn. This is a steep and dangerous section which requires climbers to clip in to pickets along the route to avoid falling. Due to this terrain we did not stop for a break until reaching the top of the autobahn at Denali pass some three hours later. Then disaster struck. Tonys hands felt cold on the way up and when he removed his gloves, his fingers were white. It was a frightening sight. Just three hours into summit day and Tony had suffered frostbite! The only option was for him to descend to camp with the second guide and seek medical help. I decided I would go back with Tony but the guide said there was no point in turning around at this stage. We carried on up the mountain though feeling great disappointment that Tony was being robbed of his chance to make the summit. We were now a team of four, three climbers and one guide roped together.
The rest of the climb was uneventful. Though one of the group was feeling the effects of the physical effort and the altitude resulting in the pace slowing and requiring more frequent breaks. By the time we reached the Football Field (a flat expanse at 19,500ft) I was very confident of making the summit. I knew it wasn’t far away now and I was feeling strong. We took a break there and I put on my final layer of clothing. We left our rucksacks on the Football Field and all four of us headed up the steep Pig hill towards the summit. As we approached the summit ridge the wind had picked up. We finally arrived at the top of Denali at 10:45 PM, some 11 1/2 hours after leaving camp, longer than expected. There was no time to hang around. As the sun was setting I took some photos to capture the moment on the highest point in North America, and then it was time to leave.
We made our way back across the ridge and began to descend Pig hill. Suddenly, everything changed. I was on the ground sliding downhill. I immediately pushed the spike of my ice axe into the ground expecting to feel the pull of the rope halting my fall. However all four of us were pulled off the mountain. The ground, steep frozen snow, was so hard my axe bounced up and out of my grip as I picked up momentum. Momentarily I feared I had lost it forgetting it was leashed to my harness. I quickly stretched out and grabbed the axe trying to force my body weight down on it. But suddenly I was spinning and tumbling out of control. I didn’t know which way was up. I thought for sure this was going to be the end.
A shot of pain ran through my right leg. After what seemed like an eternity, although it was probably only a matter of seconds, we finally came to a stop. We had dropped some 300 to 400 hundred feet. It was a huge relief that the fall had ended but I realised quickly my leg was broken and I was in serious trouble.
The guide produced an emergency blanket which, when he opened over me, providing some very welcome cover from the elements. Incredibly though, the wind got hold of it and it disappeared into the night, as if it had never existed. He tried calling for help on the radio, but no one answered. Even the SAT phone was of no use. The situation was getting rapidly worse.
Then he clipped some cord into my harness, to try to lower me down off the slope. He struggled to control my slide, firstly moving me feet first downwards but my broken leg bobbled and snagged on the rough ground as I could not lift it clear. The pain was horrendous and I had to ask him to stop. He then tried sliding me down headfirst. This time it was my head that took a beating, banging repeatedly as we jerked forward in a stop start motion, my leg dragging behind jarring with pain. I thought this can’t be how I get of here. How will I stick it? I managed to lift my broken right leg onto my good leg to try and protect it and thankfully this improved the situation.
Eventually on the edge of the Football Field he could drag me no further. I didn’t want to stay there and I wanted to try to walk with his help. I stood and put my arm around his shoulder trying to hold my broken leg off the ground as I hopped on the other leg. It was incredibly difficult. My broken leg felt like a dead weight, it was more than I could do to keep it off the ground. The pain and the effort were too much. Heartbroken I had to stop and lay back down on the ground.
He told me I would have to stay where I was while he went for help. I asked him for my rucksack to put under me to keep me off the cold ground. Before he left me he said he would make it down to camp in an hour and a half and that he would get a helicopter to come up and get me. I believed he would. As I lay there shivering fiercely I wondered to myself “what do I do now? Do I fall asleep? If I do, will I ever wake up?”
During the fall I had lost one of my mittens leaving only a light glove for protection so I knew that hand was going to be in trouble. Lying on the ground I tried to keep moving my fingers and toes as much as possible to keep the blood moving. I just had to be patient, wait it out for a few hours when help would arrive.
Several hours passed and there was no sign of rescue. I was a little concerned. Did the guys have more trouble on their descent than expected? The only sound in the sky was the wind. The force of which was becoming too strong to allow any helicopters take off but this did not occur to me. I was focused on being rescued.
It was a very strange experience being up there. I just couldn’t believe this had happened to me and that it had happened so far from camp and so far from help. Lying exposed on the frozen ground. Alone! It made no sense.
I must have fallen asleep or passed out because I remember clearly the sensation of suddenly waking up. I bolted upright in shock. The noise and the power of the wind were ferocious. The bright light was blinding, the sky, the ground, everything was white. It was as if the nightmare was beginning all over again. I had to get out of the raging wind. I looked around for some form of shelter but on the football field there was nowhere to hide. My snow goggles had disappeared in the fall and my climbing glasses had broken in my pocket so I couldn’t focus very well. Everything blended into a white blur as wind and snow drift hit my face. It was impossible to make out any landmarks or the terrain with any clarity or definition. Where was I going to find shelter?
I decided I would try to get my head and upper body in my rucksack and use the bottom zipped opening for ventilation. It wasn’t easy. Lying on the ground and trying to prevent it blowing away, I struggled to get it up over my shoulders. My left hand wasn’t much help as my fingers were frozen. I tried and tried but without success. I was devastated at being beaten.
I tried to pick out a spot on the large expanse of the Football Field where there might be some escape from the wind. Then I had to figure out how to get there. I wanted to retain my rucksack so I rolled over on it to keep it from blowing away while propelling myself forward with my good leg. At this stage I felt no pain. I moved along slowly, searching. It was brutal! After some time I seemed no closer to where I was going. Everything seemed so far away. So cruelly out of reach. I tried again to squeeze into my rucksack. This time the wind caught hold of it and it blew away disappearing like a balloon pricked by a pin. I couldn’t believe it. I felt cheated. Robbed of the only the only possession I had to help me. How much worse was this going to get?
I sat up with my back to the wind and pushed off with my hands and my good leg, dragging the broken leg along. Slowly I inched along until I eventually made it to a small outcrop. I was greatly relieved to find some break from the incessant gale.
Hours passed. I may have fallen asleep, maybe only for seconds, maybe for longer but I remember the feeling of suddenly waking up again. Still no rescue. Something must have gone very wrong on the groups descent. Did any of them make it down to camp? Surely someone knows I’m still up here.
On the flight to Alaska I had watched again, the story of Aron Ralston in the movie 127 hours. I was aware that, like Aron, eventually the time would come when I could wait no longer and I would have to do something myself. I would leave it as long as possible but I would have to try to drag myself towards high camp even if I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going. If no one was coming for me I’d have to rescue myself. I wasn’t going to go out without trying.
I was very thirsty now. I checked my pockets and found the three remaining squares of a Cadburys Dairy Milk chocolate bar. I broke off one square and ate it as if it was going to give me the strength I would need to carry myself off this mountain. As I ate the second square I stared at the purple wrapper and thought of Tom Creans story, in Unsung Hero. On his return from Scott’s Pole-bound party he had to make a daring 35 mile solo run to camp, to save the lives of Bill Lashly and Teddy Evans. He had a few biscuits and some chocolate in his pocket, completely insufficient for the life or death journey he was undertaking. The story recalls how he stopped at one point to rest and eat his paltry supplies, but saved one biscuit, for the rest of his march. I always admired the mental strength he must have had to do this – this and so many other great feats – so I followed his lead and saved the final piece of chocolate for when I might need it more.
Hours later, at 5pm on the 12 of May, a helicopter flew overhead and arched off into the distance, over the hill above me. I was delighted to see it. At last there was some sign that I would be rescued, although I couldn’t tell if the pilot had seen me or not.
A half an hour later the helicopter returned. I waved my arm in case I hadn’t been seen and to show I was alright. I had no doubt now that I was getting out of here. It was such an enormous relief as the pilot hovered over me. I waited for something to happen, for the pilot to set down or for the winch man to come down to pick me up. But instead he took off again. I was a little concerned that he might not come back but I was assured by the fact that I had been seen and surely it would only be a matter of time before help returned. At 7pm, 19 hours after the fall, the helicopter returned and as before hovered overhead. Again I waved and waited but nothing happened. I hoped he would not take off again. Then I noticed a metal rescue basket sitting on the snow a few feet away from where I was. I didn’t see it arriving and I was fairly sure it wasn’t there before now. So I slid my way over to it as fast as I could in case it would leave without me. I threw my left leg in and pulled in the right one. As I did my right mitten fell off. I looked at it lying on the ground. I wanted to pick it up, it was only a few feet away but I was afraid if I got out of the basket I’d be left behind. So I thought to hell with it, sure I only have one anyway. The helicopter took off with me hanging from some 150 feet of rope in the basket below. I remember looking at a carabiner attached to the inside of the basket thinking I should clip in to it. I don’t know if I did. As we moved away slowly I watched the mountains go by and thought to myself “I would have imagined this would be more exciting”.
The relief of the getting out of my desperate situation came over me. I gave in to the exhaustion and slumped over in the basket. I don’t remember any more of my journey. As it turned out, the rescue equalled the highest helicopter rescue ever in North America. Unknown to myself I was right on the limit.
At basecamp I was transferred to a fixed wing aircraft and flown to Anchorage. There I spent one month in hospital before being flown home to Cork for another three months in CUH. I was severely frostbitten, had several amputations but thankfully lived to tell the tale.
“I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit these amazing places. And extremely thankful to be around to tell the story of Denali.”
My sincerest thanks to Jerry O’Sullivan, for sharing his story, with Tom Crean Discovery.