ANCHORAGE — For three foreign climbers, each on his own and each debilitated by altitude sickness while high on Mount McKinley, help came Monday night from a mountaineering ranger and a team of volunteers who just happened to cross paths with the three, one right after the other.
The drama began just before 8 p.m. near the 19,300-foot level of the 20,320-foot mountain when a park ranger and four volunteer patrollers encountered a Serbian climber who staggered and collapsed as they approached.
It ended about three hours later with the last of three short-haul helicopter rescues, two at 19,300 feet and a third at 18,700 feet. Two of the climbers were treated at a hospital and one remained on the mountain, according to the park service.
Each of the men needed help but none had called for it. All three survived because park ranger Tucker Chenoweth and his crew were at the right place at the right time — three times in a row.
“They were not responding to a call for help,” National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said of Chenoweth’s crew. “They encountered (the climbers).
“This was very lucky.”
Park officials believe Chenoweth and the four volunteers had taken advantage of good weather and climbed to the 20,320-foot summit earlier Monday.
As they descended, they encountered 27-year-old Zelkjo Dulic of Serbia at 19,300 feet. Dulic staggered and collapsed as Chenoweth and the others approached, McLaughlin said. Unable to walk Dulic down to the 17,200-foot camp, the patrollers called for help.
The park’s high-altitude A-Star B3 helicopter happened to be at the Kahiltna Glacier base camp because of a resource management project. So pilot Andy Hermansky — who last month took part in a daring rescue even higher on the mountain — headed to the sick climber. There, Chenoweth put Dulic in a harness called a “screamer suit” attached to the end of a rope dropped by Hermansky, who then flew the climber to the 14,200-foot camp.
While all of this was happening, 22-year-old Sho Tamagawa of Japan stumbled upon the scene.
“They were attending the first patient and the second patient just moved down the trail to them,” McLaughlin said.
Like Dulic, Tamagawa staggered and collapsed in front of the patrollers. Like Dulic, he was traveling alone. Like Dulic, he couldn’t walk down the mountain with help. Hermansky and the helicopter returned.
After short-hauling Tamagawa in the screamer suit to 14,200 feet, Hermansky flew both of the rescued climbers to the Kahiltna base camp at 7,200 feet.
Above them, tired from the two rescues, Chenoweth and the four volunteer patrollers resumed their descent.
They didn’t get far. At 18,700 feet, they came across Masaaki Kobayasi, a 20-year-old Japanese who was semi-conscious and non-ambulatory due to altitude sickness, McLaughlin said. Though he had been a member of the same expedition as Tamagawa, Kobayasi was alone when he was found.
Chenoweth again called for help, and Hermansky again returned in the helicopter.
It was a little after 10:30 p.m. when the final short-haul rescue occurred and even later when Chenoweth and his crew reached 17,200 feet, the camp where the team is based this week, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said mountaineering rangers like Chenoweth spend 30 days on the mountain during the climbing season, each with a volunteer crew of four to five patrollers. A crew will spend about a week at Kahiltna to acclimate, then move to 14,200 feet for a week or two before going to 17,200 for the final week or so. At any given time during the season, there’s a team at each camp.
She said three rescues in one night are unusual but not unprecedented on McKinley, North American’s tallest peak. Chenoweth, in fact, had a three-rescue night a few years ago, she said.