Friday, July 08, 2005

Near Death-Part V

As we got our bearings after waking up, we heard a noise outside the tent. I looked out to see a climber crawling through the snow toward our tent. We helped him into the tent, and it was clear that he was in pretty bad shape. He was either a Swede or a German. His hands were frozen, his face was far too red, and he was disoriented.

Our climbing guide told me to allow him to put his hands on my bare chest, to help him avoid frostbite, and that's what I did. Others in our group packed up our gear to sprint down the mountain before another storm hit. As the German climber's hands started to thaw abit, he looked in my eyes and said, just a little too loudly: "Welcome to Hell." I couldn't disagree with his sentiments.

We took off down the mountain, picking up a couple of other stragglers who had gotten it much worse from the previous night's storm than we had. We made it back down to 14,000 and dropped off the injured and battered at the medical station. We gathered up the rest of our team and kept booking down the mountain, relentlessly trying to get down to base camp before darkness came. It took almost 20 hours, but we descended the roughly 12,000 feet down the mountain, and set up camp at the base camp level of 6,000 feet. The last one hundred yards were uphill, and my steps were about six inches at a time.

The next morning, a small engine airplane came to pick us up. The plane required two trips: four climbers and their gear, per trip. Our group went second. The brief ride required the navigation of a fairly narrow pass, and, with strong winds knocking the plane around pretty good, had I not been completely exhausted and still in a fair degree of shock, it would have rattled me much more than it did. By the time we landed in Talkeetna, Alaska, our fellow climbers had warmed the bar stools at the local saloon and we were, in short order, celebrating our survival.

I had eaten two massive cheeseburgers and knocked back four straight beers when somebody rushed into the saloon to give us the news: the plane that had dropped us off, on its return trip to Denali, had crashed at the pass, apparently thrown onto the mountains by the strong winds. Rescue helicopters were being sent and they could be heard in the distance.

I sat at the bar, put my head on forearms, shut my eyes and thought about the previous three weeks. The whole thing had become overwhelming.

I lifted my head and I ordered another beer.