Magnificent Rescue on McKinley - INTREPID MEN vs M
Charles Champlin, LIFE Correspondent
alaska, mt mckinley, denali, climbing, mountaineering, accident, first, ,
Jun 6, 1960
Magnificent Rescue on McKinley
INTREPID MEN vs MIGHTY MAC
From far up on the slopes of Mt. McKinley--Mighty Mac, the highest peak on the continent--came a radio plea for help. At 16,400 feet in a tiny tent, a woman lay near death from lack of oxygen. A thousand feet above, a man lay helpless with a broken leg and a companion, with a mild concussion, was badly befuddled. In a chain of coincidences, two independent parties had reached the summit together. Independently they suffered the penalties which the mountain inflicts on the weak or the rash.
At the mountain's base, the most massive mountain rescue operation in U.S. history was organized. The call went out among the mountaineering fraternity and climbers rushed from Seattle, Portland, and Anchorage. Soon more than 50 rescuers were airlifted in by daring pilots. The Army and Air Force contributed helicopters and parachuted down food and equipment. The rescue became an elemental struggle of brave men against the unpredictable treachery of a mountain.
One of the two parties had been inspired by Helga Bading of Anchorage, an experienced mountaineer. On the way up she grew steadily sicker from the lack of oxygen and was forced to stay behind. The other party was organized by wealthy cattleman John Day from Oregon, who was bitten by the climbing bug only three years ago and he cared primarily about setting mountain-climbing speed records. Accompanied by three of America's best mountaineers, he dispensed with customary pauses for altitude acclimation. After racing to
the summit in three days, they headed down dull and exhausted by their exertion in rarified air--to suffer the accident described on the next two pages.
The outside world may never have known of the troubles in time without the radio, which had been taken along by the Anchorage group as a stunt to broadcast from the summit. And only a chance phone call saved Mrs. Bading. In Boston, Bradford Washburn, authority on Mt. McKinley, called Talkeetna, Alaska for news. He happened to catch top bush pilot Don Sheldon and told him of an obscure landing spot within reach of Mrs. Bading. Sheldon found it and the stricken woman was saved.
"WE GOT OVERCONFIDENT, RELAXED OUR CAUTION"
Late Tuesday John Day and his party reached the summit of Mt. McKinley. There they joined the Anchorage climbers and the two groups photographed each other. "It was the first time in history," Day says, "that two parties had been at the top at the same time."
The Anchorage group went back down, and shortly afterward Day and his three companions followed. They were roped together, about 25 feet apart.
Bone-tired, the four men inched their way down the ice. Only a half hour before they expected to reach their high Camp at 16,500 feet, they started laterally across a steep stretch of ice. Jim Wittaker led. Day, Lou Wittaker and Pete Schoening followed. Even in bright sunlight, it was more than 25 degrees below zero.
“It was a rough piece of ice,” Lou Wittaker recalls, “but in Comparison to some of the stuff we’d been on it looked like a highway. That was our trouble. We relaxed our caution that one little bit.”
Someone slipped. In an instant the four men were plummeting down the slope in a tangle of ropes and legs. They clawed futilely at the ice with their axes. But their speed was so great that Jim recalls the ice “was like a freight train rushing by two inches from your face.”
They came to a stop 400 feet away, at a lip in the ice. Beyond the lip Lay a steeper drop of more than 1,000 feet. Day’s left leg was broken Below the knee. Low Whittaker was badly shaken. As he looked about him he saw that Schoening, though on his feet, was virtually unconscious while Jim Whittaker “was sitting there dazed. I yelled at him a few times and he could barely hear me.”
Jim recovered quickly, but Pete Schoening still cannot remember much that happened in the two days that followed the accident. The temperature was now around 30 degrees below, and a fierce wind was threatening to hurl Day down the edge of the ice face. The four men had carried one sleeping bag with them for emergencies. The Whittaker brothers eased Day into the bag, hacked out a shallow depression in the ice, and placed him in it for safety. Then they roped up with Schoening and , leaving Day, started down to their high camp and the sleeping bags without which they knew they could never survive the night.
The cries of the Day party as they fell had been heard by the Anchorage party a few hundred yards below. Paul Crews of the latter group, seeing that a man had been hurt, hurried on down the slope to fetch the tent from the Day camp.
Schoening and the Whittakers made their way down. Him, partly deafened by blows he had taken during the tumble, had lost his sense of balance and kept falling. Pete, mumbling incoherently, also fell repeatedly.
“As we went along, Pete argued about the route,” Lou remembers. “He unroped. We went on to the base camp, figuring he was behind us. After a half hour, Pete didn’t show up, so I went back to look for him. It took me an hour to find him, sitting on a ledge. I said, ‘Pete, let’s get back down.’ On our way we passed Crews going up with the tent.”
Day’s tent had a sewn-in bottom. When Crews reached the injured man he did not dare move him. Instead he slit the tent bottom and slipped it over Day. He made sure Day was safe in the tent, then went back down to his own camp to make radio contact with the outside world. It would be three days before the injured man would be rescued.
PRODIGIOUS AIR FEATS
The battle against Big Mac was won in the air. Heroic pilots forced themselves and their frail craft to prodigious performances. To airlift both rescuers and the rescued they nipped among the cruel crags, through perilous air currents. At such altitudes helicopter blades find little to bite into, and plane controls can turn fatally sluggish (left).
The particular heroes were Don Sheldon and Link Luckett. Sheldon virtually lived eight days in the air, made repeated landings at 14,200 feet. Luckett first stripped his Hiller helicopter (altitude ceiling: 16,000 feet) to a shell. Even the battery went, once the motor was started. His goal: John Day and Peter Schoening, helpless at 17,300 feet, higher than any aircraft had ever landed and taken off from before. After breathless test runs, he plucked them away. Saved by such courage, the survivors were greeted by their loving families (next page), as well as some angry criticism for playing too fast and loose with a tough mountain.