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The rescue cache is a six-by-four-by-two-foot wooden container, painted red with a white cross marked on the top of it. A twelve-foot-long wooden pole with a red flag on the end of it marks the location, in case the box is covered over by blowing snow. Jack Brehm and Skip Kula open the box, which is crammed with 150 lengths of perlon climbing rope with a tensile strength of 1,800 pounds as well as carabiners and snow anchors, called snow flukes. The rangers have assured them that there is enough rope to reach Fourteen Camp on Mt. McKinley. The Stokes litter, a six-and-a-half-by-two-and-a-half-foot metal cage, is roped to the back of the box. Brehm unfastens the litter, while Skip sorts through the ropes. It's about 7:00 p.m. when Garth Lenz, Steve Daigle, and the others arrive.
"What's the situation?" Lenz asks.
"Bad," Kula replies. He radios to the park rangers what they've found.
The ground they stand on is bare, windswept rock and hard-packed snow, a treeless expanse about the size of a couple of football fields, rising gently toward the summit. Looking down, you can see Fourteen Camp, then nothingness--endless mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. A wounded climber under his own power might be able to descend the same way he'd come, but an unconscious man has to go down the hard way, lowered on ropes following a couloir, or crease, in the headwall, which is partly visible from Fourteen Camp. Jack begins tying lengths of rope together, using a series of double fisherman's knots, but to do so, he's forced to remove his heavy down-filled mittens, leaving only a thin pair of navy blue polypropylene liners between his bare skin and thewind. His fingers are quickly numb, which slows the knot-tying process. His thought processes slow down as well, something he is aware of but can do nothing about, other than to work carefully and double-check each knot he ties to make sure it will hold. Hypoxia robs a man of his ability to reason, like a computer that's not getting enough juice to drive its programs. Brehm works carefully, knowing that a flawed brain is, at some level, incapable of accurately measuring or assessing itself. He has tied knots like this a thousand times before, and he has faith that his hands will remember what to do.
At the top of the mountain, the men establish an equalizing triangular anchor system, using snow flukes, an ice ax, and a rock. Each anchor will bear a third of the load, or about two hundred pounds. In theory, any one anchor will hold, were the other two to give way. From above, two men will hold the rope at all times, lowering it hand over hand, braking with a four-carabiner rig. Two men will go down with the litter and guide it over any potential snags. There will be no way for the men going down with the litter to communicate with the men up top, though conceivably the rangers at Fourteen Camp might be able to spot the litter with their binoculars and send up progress reports. Going down the headwall with the litter is going to be the hard part. Whoever is in the best shape should go. Skip Kula polls his team members. There's no call, in this kind of situation, for false bravado--claiming to feel better than you actually do is only going to get everybody else in bigger trouble. Jack Brehm, Skip Kula, and Jack Chapin have been working feverishly since their arrival and need to recover. Abrams and Blinkhorn shake their heads.
Steve Lupenski and Mike Wayt will go. They are twenty-four and twenty-six years old, respectively, as strong as bulls and as fed, rested, and acclimated as anyone within a thousand miles could be. At this time of year, light--available twenty-two out of twenty-four hours a day--will not be a problem. Even getting the Korean a thousand feet lower might help him, so it's decided that they should begin lowering Kim Hong Bim immediately. Delay could mean death. High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE, can proceed rapidly from stupor to coma to death from massive cerebral hemorrhaging.
The temperature is about fifteen or twenty degrees, not terribly cold. Jack Brehm and the others are, however, becoming increasingly concerned with the wind, which has been blowing at fifteen to twenty-five knots during the day, but which has now increased to forty to sixty knots, somewhere between a Force 9 gale and a Force 11 violent storm on the Beaufort scale. Any winter activities enthusiast knows that the outer layer of your clothing is as important as the insulating layer, perhaps even more important. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that heat will flow from hot to cold objects. Blowing on a cup of hot coffee cools the coffee by increasing the number of cooler air molecules that come in contact with the warmer coffee molecules. The same thing happens when wind blows across the human body. If life is a flame, the kind you see at the end of a candle, then it seems to the men atop Mt. McKinley that day like God is trying to blow out the candles. The irony is that up so high, where there is so little oxygen, so much of it can come at you all at once. A fifty-knot wind at sea level feels quite different from a fifty-knot wind at 17,000 feet--up that high, it feels dangerous, like your clothes and your skin don't so much stop the wind as filter it, as it blows through you and sucks the heat from your core. Even with ninety-nine percent of your body covered, you know a wind like that stands a good chance of killing you. All you can really do is get out of its path.
Brehm feels himself weakening, while he fights the desire to become lazy, bug out, and to let somebody else take over. He has a headache. Thinking is becoming difficult. They've done a major climb in eleven hours and haven't had time to stop and rest once they reached their goal. He is anxious.
They begin lowering the Korean around 7:30 p.m., letting out a few feet of rope at regular intervals. Mike Wayt works on the Korean's right side, Lupenski on his left, both men tethered to the Stokes litter, which gives them the freedom to move about but not enough slack that if one loses his footing, a fall would jolt the configuration. The Korean weighs maybe 140 pounds. After using 150 sections of rope, the three men are out of sight. For the first thirty minutes, Brehm and Daigle at the belaying station can feel the tug of the weight as it descends, but after a certain point, the friction of the rope against the rock face and the play in the perlon fibers make it harder to tell when they've got a bite. You could lose all or part of your load at the other end and not know it unless you start the retrieving line. Muscling the litter back up, if something were to go wrong down below, is not an option. Skip Kula is in touch with the park ranger at Fourteen Camp. He calls down again around 10:00 p.m.
"Do you see 'em?" Kula asks.
"Negative," the ranger replies. "You're probably about a third of the way."
"I'm guessing you're down a thousand feet," the ranger below says. "A third of the way down the couloir. Maybe twelve hundred."
"How do you know if you can't see them?"
"Saw them earlier but now they're out of sight."
"Say again?" Kula asks. The signal from the walkie-talkie is breaking up.
"You're short," the ranger says. "We think you're at about twelve hundred feet."
"Jesus Christ--we're almost out of rope," Skip replies. "They have to be farther down than that."
"Ask him how much rope they put in the goddamn box," Brehm tells Skip.
"Enough," the ranger replies. The ranger sounds defensive. There should have been enough.
Kula crosses to Brehm and the others. "We need more rope," he shouts.
"No sweat," Brehm says. "I'll just pop over to the rope store and get some."
They tie on three sections of their own personal rope--another 450--but they are still short. Kula curses and relays the news to the others. Now they've sent all their rope down the mountain. They are exhausted after arising at 5:30 a.m. and laboring fairly nonstop since then. It's approaching 11:00 a.m. Somebody has to go down the rope and find a way to set up a second belaying station from a lower elevation. Another poll is taken. Brehm's fingertips are all severely frostbitten from taking his mittens off to tie the knots. It's decided that Garth Lenz will go down and see what the problem is. Wayt and Lupenski are probably wondering what the problem is, too.
Brehm is standing at the belaying station when he looks up and sees what he thinks is a large bird flying overhead. A bird or else some kind of low-flying aircraft. But birds don't fly that high, and airplanes aren't likely to be found above Mt. McKinley, so Brehm is puzzled, until he realizes, slowly, forcing himself to accept the idea, that it isn't a bird or an airplane but rather the tents they've been attempting to erect for the last hour, blown clean off the mountain. They have two other tents with them, low-profile models made from heavy nylon for just such environments, but it has taken all their best efforts to put up the first one, and now it is gone. The winds are too strong to pitch a tent or light a stove. He experiences a sinking feeling, a momentary sense of hopelessness--that even though he knows what further steps to take, it doesn't matter. It's too late. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to swallow. It hurts to blink. He feels nauseated and weak, and he senses that he is getting weaker.
Is this how I'm going to die? Brehm briefly thinks. He just as quickly pushes the idea away, but at the very least, he feels certain they are about to change over from rescuers to rescuees. To a PJ, there is no worse feeling than that.