A year ago, two friends and I were rescued from 16,000 ft on Mt. Loganâ€™s east ridge while attempting to traverse over the mountain, the largest in the world. Eric had high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema. This is the story of an ambitious-for-us trip, the mistakes we made, and lessons we learned.
Mistake + reflection = progress.
I have had a year to reflect.
This is a long write-up. It will take about 20 minutes to read. For a tl;dr version, glance at the photos and skip to conclusion section at the bottom.
|East Ridge of Mt Logan as seen from a helicopter. We were rescued from the point where the east ridge meets the summit plateau. The route gains 13,000 ft.|
Mount Logan is the second tallest mountain in North America, the largest mountain in the world by volume, and is surrounded by the world’s largest non-polar icefield. A great way to get a sense of this place is to fly from the Lower 48 to Anchorage in a window seat on a cloudless day. By the time the pilot announces the names and elevations of Logan (19,551 ft) and St. Elias (18,009 ft), you’ll have flown over 80 miles of glaciers and countless unnamed, unclimbed peaks. Then you’ll continue over another 150 miles of glaciers and countless un-named, unclimbed peaks.
On April 6, 2017, Dan, Eric, and I set off with the intent of skiing Mt Vancouver (15,787 ft) then traversing Logan via its East Ridge (Grade VI, 13,000 ft, easy rock climbing, AI2-3, steep snow), and skiing and packrafting to McCarthy, Alaska. In total, the trip would have been around 200 miles.
On April 19, we were rescued from roughly 16,000 ft on Logan by two helicopters. Eric developed high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). He had a hole in his only sleeping pad and the bottom half of his sleeping bag was wet from a water bottle that leaked the day before. The rescue was supported by approximately 20 Parks Canada employees.
|Mt Logan and Vancouver, our objectives, are surrounded by the world’s largest non-polar icefield.|
|Mt. Logan is the largest mountain in the world by volume and has the largest base circumference. The red line shows the route up the East Ridge (at right), across the summit plateau, and down the Kings Trench route. Approximately 13 miles of travel are above 14,000 ft.|
Cast of Characters
|Eric (left) and Dan walking around Haines Junction before flying into the icefield.
Dan and I are friends from high school. We were on the Nordic and alpine ski teams together. After that, I took a 10-year break from skiing, while Dan continued to pursue all types of skiing. Now, heâ€™s the assistant director of a college outdoor program in Bozeman, Montana.
This trip was low on Dan’s list of things to do on his first visit to Alaska. Skiing steep lines in the Chugach was most appealing to him. He agreed to do the Logan traverse only because we’d bring skis. Specifically, we’d carry our skis up 13,000 ft before strapping them on to descend, likely roped together, a maze of crevasses.
Prior to this trip, Dan had been up a 20,000 ft peak in Boliviaâ€”a non-technical, two-day walk up.
Eric and I went to Hampshire College. He has broad, strong shoulders, an infectious smile, and ten times more grit than most people could dream of. Seven years ago, he fell asleep while driving home after paddling a Class V river and broke his leg and feet in a variety of places. His left leg was bolted together at an angle such that his ski veers off to the left each time he strides forward.
Eric has guided many 50-day backpacking and canoeing trips in Southeast Alaska. He did two easier climbing trips to the Alaska Range in 2016, including one with me.
He had a strong desire to reach the summit of Logan. I believe he wanted to prove something to himself and to others. One reason I suggest this is two weeks before we left for this trip Eric started working at a climbing guide service. He may have felt a lot of external pressure to be successful on Logan.
Eric had been up Californiaâ€™s high point and therefore didnâ€™t have any experience with high altitude.
I was really excited about this trip because I wanted to see the placeâ€”the largest mountain in the world and a massive icefieldâ€”and was keen for an adventure where we moved every day, rather than typical expedition climbing where you wait around for a long time in camp before climbing. Also, I wanted to try something challenging. The four previous big mountain trips I had done were successful. This was an ambitious trip for us, but I felt confident we could do it if we had a weather window.
After the trip, my mom told me:
â€œJust as you left we gathered for uncle Dennisâ€™ 70th birthday celebration. I talked a lot about your trip, and aunt Jeannie commented that I seemed worried about you. Itâ€™s true. I had a bad feeling about this trip for months, but I didn’t want to share it with you, so I cooked, and when Dennis blew out his birthday candles I made a wish for your trip!â€�
I flew in first to our east ridge cache. Tom, the pilot, said, â€œAlright mate, for the next two hours youâ€™ll be the only person on the worldâ€™s largest non-polar icefield.â€� The nearest person was 65 miles away.
As I was digging the cache, a gigantic avalanche tumbled off Loganâ€™s east ridge, sending a powder cloud 3,000 ft up the ridge across the valley, and then barreling out the main valley toward me. This was the largest avalanche I have seen in my life. It was a potent reminder that I was back in the big mountains. See the photos below.
|Avalanche off the East Ridge. The powder cloud in the back right (several miles away) climbed roghly 3000 ft up the adjacent peak before traveling down the valley.|
|The avalanche powder cloud traveled more than a mile to the base of the East Ridge.|
Mt Vancouver: Asthma Attack or Altitude?
When we reached around 9,000 ft on Mt. Vancouver, on the second day of our trip, Eric began wheezing. Loud, raspy gasps of air. He was in respiratory distress. We skied extremely slow and stopped every few minutes so he could catch his breath. I was mystified and frustrated. This was the first full day of what was supposed be our acclimatization mountain. I knew that if this was happening now, at 9000 ft, it was highly unlikely that Eric would be able to make it up a 19,500 ft peak. Eric took a bunch of puffs of his inhaler, but it didnâ€™t help his wheezing.
Was the problem related to altitude? We went from 2,800 ft. to 9,500 ft. in 24 hours, a reasonable increase.
Though I recall him using an inhaler once on the trip we did together in 2016, I forgot Eric had asthma. He told Dan and I that it had never been a serious issue before. Would it have been reasonable to say no, we shouldn’t do a highly committing high altitude trip because we don’t know how your body will respond?
In camp that night he said it was an old inhaler. He didn’t have the time and money to see a doctor to get a new prescription.
I thought: OMG, you have asthma, this will be the most physically challenging effort of your life, and you brought an ineffective, years-old inhaler!!!!
I used the InReach to message my mother, an alternative health care doctor, to see if she could offer advice.
My mom spread the word to my dad and step-mother, Elsie, who is a medical doctor. Elsie messaged wrote the following:
â€œSymptoms of life-threatening high altitude pulmonary edema and exercise-induced asthma much the same. The safest course for Eric is lower altitude and rest. Looking forward to your pictures when you return. New baby in the family: Imogen Heidi Freeman-Young.â€�
My mom sent a note, too:
â€œEric and ALL of you need to know the risks you face if you continue. High altitude rescue is difficult. If Albuterol is not helping Eric likely has HAPE.â€�
In the morning, Eric didn’t feel well enough to continue up Vancouver. He proposed that Dan and I do a day trip. Not knowing the cause of Ericâ€™s health problem and fearful of the 3,000 ft of avalanche terrain below us, we decided to descend immediately.
Conditions were PERFECT. Deep, stable powder that fell with no wind. the weather forecast was bluebird with no wind.
Dan, who has worked as an avalanche instructor, said, “This simply does not happen on big mountains.” If we had continued up, the 10,000 ft descent may have been the best of our lives. Also, only one party is known to have skied Vancouver before.
Back down on the Hubbard glacier, artery to the Pacific Ocean, delivery driver of storms that bring several feet of snow per hour to the surrounding peaks, we skied 20 miles back to our east ridge gear cache. We traveled unroped at our own pace. Eric arrived in camp almost an hour after Dan and me. Whatever happened on Vancouver, it made him weaker.
|Looking up 10,000 ft on Mt Vancouver. We traveled up the slopes in the center and center-right of the image.|
|Approximately 8,500 ft on Mt Vancouver, when Eric was wheezing and our pace slowed to a n intermittent crawl.|
|After deciding not to continue up, we skied down Vancouver with heavy packs.|
DO YOU THINK THIS WAS ASTHMA OR ALTITUDE?
Iâ€™ll summarize the what we knew at this point in the trip:
- Eric said, â€œMy body is slow to adapt.â€�
- Eric said, â€œIâ€™ve never had a serious issue with asthma before.â€�
- 2800 ft. to 10,000 ft. in 24 hours=
- Ericâ€™s pace slowed around 8,000 ft.
- Wheezing & â€œcrawling paceâ€� around 9,500 ft.
- No response to old inhaler
- Exhausted in morning, not able to continue up
- Slower pace skiing to East Ridge cache
- A cough at East Ridge cache
Answer: Asthma Attack
A month after we got back from the trip, I took a Wilderness First Responder course with one of the best instructors in the world. (She spent a decade guiding on Denali, worked with the then-best frostbite doctor in the world, and has 30 years of wilderness travel and risk management experience in Alaska.) She and I discussed the Logan trip in detail and believed Eric had an asthma problem on Vancouver. She also said that HACE and HAPE often occur simultaneously, with one exhibiting symptoms more than the other.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema 101
Here are the key differences between HACE and HAPE:
- Brain swelling
- Mild: Acute Mountain Sickness, headache, nausea, fatigue
- Moderate: severe headache, disoriented, sluggish, sensitivity to light, vomit
- Severe: brain failure, death
- Treatment: descend
- Fluid in lungs
- Symptoms: cough, shortness of breath at rest, difficulty walking
- Treatment: Dexamethasone injection, descend
Do we go up!?
We rested for two full days back at our east ridge cache. The weather was perfect: bluebird with no wind.
Eric was plum exhausted, recovering from some type of illness or infection. He was coughing regularly. I asked him about his health and felt that he didnâ€™t respond openly or honestly.
â€œHow are you feeling?â€�
â€œWhat does that mean?â€�
â€œEverything is good.â€�
â€œIf a doctor asked you how you were feeling, from 1-100, what would you say?â€�
â€œI donâ€™t know. I canâ€™t tell. Honestly, I rarely feel 100%â€�
Meanwhile, without telling us, my mom tried to coordinate the rapid purchase and delivery of a new inhaler for Eric. She talked to Sarah, our in-town contact, Ericâ€™s brother Aaron who lives in Chicago and was giving us daily weather forecasts, and Sian at the air taxi. No one was planning to fly into East ridge for several weeks. Otherwise, my mom would have overnighted an inhaler to Haines Junction and had it flown in.
â€œAs you likely know, Wendy is very concerned about Eric and believes he should be flown out.â€� – Sarah
â€œFrom a satelliteâ€™s view, North Americaâ€™s coastal rainforests appear as a delicate fringe adorning the western rim of the continentâ€¦ Among these forestsâ€™ entire length, a succession of mountain ranges forms a natural bulwark between the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the continent, and it is here that the storms which trundle continually across the North Pacific are stopped in their tracks. Rainclouds, appearing as airborne water bladders, burst open when they collide with the cooler air of the coastal mountains and the results can be astonishing.â€� -Sarah
I was a ball of stressâ€”nervous about whether it was reasonable to carry on with our plan to go up and over the largest mountain on the planet via a committing route with a friend who wasnâ€™t healthy. I tried not to show my stress or concern to Dan or Eric.
My mom sent a message, which I chose not to share with Eric and Dan.
“NOW is the time to lead Max- you have + experience/ let your heart and intuition guide u.â€�
I thought about proposing that we tour around Logan with a mobile basecamp, skiing lines that caught our attention. But how could we bail when the forecast was perfect!?
With one night at 10,000 ft, we were not acclimatized. If we had stuck with our plan, we would have spent a couple days above 14,000 ft on Vancouver and been able to travel faster and lighter on Logan.
I took my shirt off and lounged on my sleeping pad outside the tent, soaking in all of the sun that bounced off the surrounding peaks. I tried to ignore my gut feeling, which said not to go up.
|Resting for two days at our East Ridge cache. I was stressed and anxious about continuing, but pretended everything was OK.|
We launched in a heavy alpine style with eight days of food and ten days of fuel.
To our knowledge, no one else has carried skis up Loganâ€™s east ridge. Itâ€™s a silly idea! Ski boots are neither as warm nor comfortable as climbing boots. Our skis, bindings, and poles weighed more than eight additional pounds per person. We also brought a 28 oz ski repair kit that included glue, wire, and a Leatherman with drill bits. Why? Becuase we wanted to do a ski traverse.
|Approaching the East Ridge|
Eric and I disagreed on the best schedule for our ascent. I argued we should go up three ish thousand feet the first day, while he advocated we camp immediately upon gaining the east ridge.
When we gained the ridge, we estimated it would take a couple of hours to dig a tent platform into the steep snow, so we continued upwards for few hours until we found a flat-ish site a few feet wider than our tent. I could tell he was angry that we had pushed on this far.
Our stove had been performing poorly and refused to fire up when we started dinner. Eric, who is excellent at stove repair, spent an hour swapping parts, peppering the apparatus with curse words. He got it running again!
I stayed outside the tent, bundled up in several thousand dollars insulation and melted snow for dinner, cooked dinner, and filled our bottles with melted snow. I checked for messages found one from my dad:
â€œMax. Be careful not to take a chance on risking Ericâ€™s lifeâ€�
And another message from my uncle, Dennis:
â€œJesus Max. Be careful and good luck as you head up and across that mighty ridge.â€�
I was extremely nervous about continuing. I knew it was a bad idea, but I bottled my feelings until the morning when we talked as a group.
We were concerned about descending. As we continued upwards, getting down would become more challenging and dangerous. We brought only the bare minimum climbing gearâ€”no snow pickets, no belay devices, no extra cord for making anchors, just one locking carabiner per person, some slings, a few ice screws, and a 60m 6mm rope.
We were also concerned about the performance of our stove. If the stove stopped working, weâ€™d need to descend immediately.
I expressed my concern about Ericâ€™s health. He said that it was hard for him to keep up with Dan and me on skis, and the best he felt the entire trip was when we were mixed climbing yesterday. He was really excited to finally be climbing technical pitches.
What Eric didnâ€™t share until after our rescue, when we were at the Parks Canada office about to enter a rescue debrief meeting, was that he was feeling exhausted that day. If we had known this, we should have descended.
The weather forecast continued to be perfect, giving us plenty of time to bail if needed. We chose to continue. Dan said, â€œthereâ€™s no reason not to.â€� (He later said that he underestimated the East Ridge.)
I watched as Dan broke trail up a steep 30-foot slope without pausing. As Eric followed, he stopped to rest six times. I counted. That evening in the tent I quietly mentioned to Dan that I was worried about Ericâ€™s pace and our ability to make it over the mountain. I incorrectly assumed Eric was asleep.
In the morning, Eric was the first person out of the tent and was ready to go, sitting on his pack, at least twenty minutes before Dan and me. He had flaked the rope out and tied into the trailing end. This was the unspoken end to his leading. From here on Dan and I would break trail.
The weather continued to be perfect as we gained elevation. It was as if the mountains held the Pacific storms at bay and whispered, â€œGentlemen, here we are. Try your best.â€�
We continued up.
Carrying all of that food, frigid weather gear, and ski gear was really challenging for me. My pack was unwieldy, my skis would jam into rocks when climbing those sections, and putting on and taking off the pack required a lot of effort. Many areas of the ridge were too narrow or too steep to take the pack off.
At the end of his daily forecast, Ericâ€™s brother shared some important news to keep us informed of global happenings. Here are some of the updates he
Scientist says human body contains less Kcal than a mammoth
Octopuses can edit their own genes
New supreme court justice sworn in and giraffe born in online video
Marijuana deemed kosher for passover. Alabama governor resigns for sex.â€�
Scorpion falls from overhead bin and stings United passenger mid-flight (whoops).â€�
Star Wars Last Jedi came out today 🙂
On this day, I wrote to my parents,
â€œEric is doing much better. Heâ€™s slower than Dan and I due to altitude, but there arenâ€™t any signs of lung problems.â€�
â€œHey Eric – hope all is going well on your trip. Love Dad.â€�
â€œThanks Dad! We are well at 10500 ft. Hope youâ€™re well. Love E.â€�
This is the day Eric got sick.
â€œEngineers find shoelaces come untied bc of cascade of forces sort of like an avalanche.â€�
We were near 15,200 ft, only a hundred feet below a potential camp location, when Ericâ€™s pace dropped to a crawl. He untied from the rope and insisted we keep going to camp. When he arrived, I asked Eric and Dan how they felt. Eric said, â€œI feel worthless.â€� Dan said, â€œI feel like a million bucks!â€�
I was so impressed and envious that the altitude had almost no effect on Dan.
Feeling weaker and with a bit of a headache, I was somewhere in between them.
The wind was whipping around the ridge, making everything colder and more difficult. I anchored my pack to the snow with two ice tools while we pitched the tent and made dinner, which took almost three hours.
Reflecting on this moment later, Eric recalled trying to dig a T-trench to bury a ski pole, which served to anchor the tent. It was taking him a long time so Dan came over and took the ice tool out of his hand, and finished the job. At the time, Eric didnâ€™t think anything of this. In retrospect, forty-eight hours after our rescue, he realized it was one of many things that demonstrated his poor mental and physical condition.
I climbed into the tent after Eric, who didnâ€™t have enough energy to flip his sleeping pad right-side up. We discussed staying put the following day so he could rest.
I sent a message to Sarah, â€œNot sure if Eric will be able to move tomorrow. We are nervous about getting up and over with enough fuel (several days left).â€�
â€œKatherine Switzer, 1st woman to run Boston Marathon in 1967, runs again today @ 70yo.â€�
Except to pee once, Eric didnâ€™t leave his sleeping bag this day. He said he had never felt worse in his lifeâ€”a 10 out of 10 headache. He covered his eyes with his Buff and hat, and lay in his sleeping bag eating nothing but a few bagel chips all day.
My mom sent a message:
Consider HACE. High Altitude Cerebral Edema early sx Bad HA, exhaustion, confused. Then dizzy, photophobia, fast heartbeat, alt mental state. If + down or evac.
â€œClear today, tmrw, next day. 15mph NE wind.â€� Wind picking up tmrw (20) and day after (30). Scientists discover a giant (3+ ft!) clam.â€�
Eric was feeling much better when he woke up, likely thanks to Diamox, a high altitude drug. I advocated that we continue upwards to get onto the edge of the summit plateau. Dan and I agreed it was the best plan, if Eric could do it, because a helicopter would be able to land.
We left camp around noon, scrambled through a bunch of giant ice blocks, and climbed up the final steep snow slope. This was the scariest moment of my life to date. I was leading up the 60-degree styrofoam snow ridge without any protection. We had traversed over such that there was a 9,000-foot drop beneath us. Eric had just emerged from 36 hours in his sleeping bag. He was weak and his brain was not working well.
I counted 10 steps before stopping so we could all rest. I kicked my feet sideways into the hard snow to take the weight off my calves and looked down between my legs to see Eric resting with his face buried in his arms. I did the same. I thought, â€�Please, please be strong. We can do this. We can get up this final steep sectionâ€�
We repeated this sequenceâ€”10 steps, rest, pray, 10 steps, rest, prayâ€”for several hundred feet. It felt like an eternity.
The slope became gentle as we reached the summit plateau. Eric decided to unclip from the rope so he could walk at his own pace. Dan was almost unaffected by altitude and offered to carry Ericâ€™s entire pack, which would not have been possible without repacking. Eric said no.
We crawled another twenty minutes until a giant flat area appeared. I was immensely relieved that we had reached the plateau! The technical climbing was over. We could make it over the rest of the mountain by walking and skiing. And a helicopter could land here!!
I was feeling the altitudeâ€”sluggish and a bit drunk. Eric was really out of it. It took him almost a half hour to go poo. He walked a little ways away and then stared out into the distance, at Vancouver, St. Elias, and the sprawling icefield. After some time, Dan saw that Eric was making no effort to go poo, so he waved at him. Eric waved back and continued to look confused.
Dan and I discussed our situation: Eric could not move fast enough to make it over the mountain in our remaining two-day weather window. We didnâ€™t know his precise health status, but he was far from his normal energetic and sharp self.
|Mt Vancouver from Logan’s East Ridge.|
Do we call for a rescue?
The snow on the summit plateau was ice-hard sastrugi. We chipped away at it for hours and cut a few blocks with the snow saw to pitch the tent. Ericâ€™s brain was not working well and his physical capacity was very low. It took him an hour and a half to move a dozen snow blocks in front of the tent. Even though we said he didnâ€™t need to move themâ€”we could do it laterâ€”he insisted on finishing the task. Then, when he climbed into the tent, he discovered he hadn’t adequately cleared ice from the threads on his water bottle. It leaked. The lower third of his sleeping bag was soaked and frozen. Also, something sharp punctured the bottom of his inflatable sleeping pad. (This model has a very tough bottom. He would not have popped it his brain was working well.)
The three of us discussed our options. Winds were forecast to increase significantly and a storm might come in a few days. We had two days of food for three people and perhaps four days of fuel. Getting over to the Kings Trench (the descent route) was about fifteen miles, with a high point of 18,600 ft if we continued with our original route. Alternatively, we could traverse around the east side of the mountain to avoid gaining altitude in the near-term, but would later need to go over an 18,000 ft pass. Eric was not physically capable of either of those options.
We could either descend or try to get a rescue.
We guessed that descending would require belaying or lowering Eric down most of the 9,000 ft route. The main concern was poor snow quality. It was highly faceted and therefore terrible for building anchors of any type. Also, there was very little ice. We only placed two reliable ice screws on our way up! Ascending without adequate protection was scary enough. If we belayed or rappelled 75% of the descent, it would require at least 34 anchors, most of which weâ€™d need to fashion with our skis. Thus, it would be quite dangerous and take a couple days.
Eric eventually said, â€œI would never call for a rescue.â€�
That statement finalized our decision. Eric was not taking risk into account because his brain was not functioning normally. He was no longer part of group decision-making.
At 19:22 I sent Sarah a series of messages.
â€œDan and I would like you to arrange a rescue for Eric as soon as possible tomorrow.â€�
â€œWe have three days of food, a finicky stove with one broken fuel pump (no backup). Ericâ€™s sleeping pad is broken (trying to fix now, no backup). And Ericâ€™s bag is wet from spilled water today. Dan and I will try to go over and down as soon as possible.â€�
â€œPlease update my mom in the morning. Not sure if itâ€™s best to share all of this (immense worry) or just wait until he is rescued.â€�
â€œShe wants to know everything. Iâ€™ll try to be discretionary. Will act on all of this now. Take care of yourselves.â€�
I felt immensely relieved immediately after sending the rescue request.
Dan and I assumed Parks Canada would also pluck us off the mountain. But, in case that didnâ€™t happen, we intended to carry on as a party of two.
|Dan on the edge of the summit plateau the morning of our rescue.|
Parks Canada Launches a Rescue
Sarah called the Parks Canada headquarters in Jasper, Alberta to relay our messages. The employee there worked down a list of Kluane Park staff, calling cell phones until Scott answered. He reached out to other folks, notifying them to prepare for a rescue in the morning. A gentleman named Ian is the only helicopter pilot in Yukon thatâ€™s trained in high altitude rescue. Scott called him to request that he change his plans for the rescue.
A team of approximately fifteen Parks Canada rescue personnel met at 7 AM to plan the rescue. They discussed the weather with the Park meteorologist, looked at our location in Google Earth, engaged a ground support team of four highly trained mountain guides from Banff, who hopped in a plane and began the trip north to Whitehorse in case they needed to climb the route or assist with a technical rescue.
I got up early and spent over an hour answering Scottâ€™s questions:
- exact location?
- slope angle?
- could you land a helicopter?
- hazards above/below?
- stomp out a landing zone?
- width of ridge at that point?
- how much food and fuel do you have?
- where is your next cache?
- what is your current wind and visibility?
- Ericâ€™s condition: respirations/minute, heart rate, level of consciousness, lungs producing phlegm, blood, ability to walk?
Sarah sent a note:
â€œSending 2 machines. 2-3 hours out. Stomp down an area for landing before they arrive. They will drop a bag with a sat phone and radio for immediate comm. and will base their operation from a site on the ridge below you, a few min flight away. Bag drop will also contain food, stove, etc. First priority is Eric. Scott will talk with you later about you and Dan. Please confirm with me that Eric is capable of getting into a harness (walk 50 ft)â€�
I asked Eric how he was doing, and he said, â€œIâ€™m fine.â€�
He seemed to be angry that a rescue was coming. For a long time, he stood near camp looking out at the icefield.
|Eric on the morning we were rescued.|
Some of our InReach messages from that morning:
â€œMessage from our mom is that she sends Eric her love! Although Eric may be unhappy she that she knows about the evac.â€� – Aaron
â€œDepending on Eâ€™s health situation I can get to Whitehorse/etc within 24 hours.â€� – Aaron
â€œThatâ€™s not necessary. Eric isnâ€™t able to continue safely but will likely feel good as soon as soon as he gets to a lower elevation. Will keep you posted.â€� -Max
â€œHi Eric- understand you have altitude sickness and are on your way out. Let me know that goes. Best wishes and feel better. Love dad.â€�
â€œPlease donâ€™t worry. A ok here. Iâ€™ll send you a text when Iâ€™m back in civilization. Love Eric.â€�
â€œYour party of 2 will not be ascending up and over to the trench. Safest option is for your to descend. What is your ability to climb down with Dan?â€� -Scott
â€œWe well acclimatized and strongly believe the easiest, safest, and fastest option is to exit via the trench. We COULD descend the east ridge, but feel that would be much harder and more dangerous.â€� -Max
It was a glorious day. Clear skies and no wind. The helicopter arrived mid-afternoon. After scoping out the landing area, Scott dropped a rescue bag with a radio. Eric left his pack with us and flew down to the base of the ridge.
The rescue operation set up a base beneath the east ridge. Scott called the lead Parks Canada physician, who spoke with Eric and confirmed his symptoms appeared to be HACE.
They came back up to grab me and Dan, and all of our gear.
|Inside the helicopter before lifting off from the East Ridge.|
When I climbed in, I accidentally unplugged Scottâ€™s oxygen with my ski boot. He noticed immediately and turned around, grasping his oxygen mask, to say, â€œMy oxygen. My oxygen.â€� I found the cord and plugged it back in.
He later explained that going from sea level to 16,000 ft without oxygen would turn a healthy, fit adult into a something that resembled a helpless, crawling baby.
We waited a little while to burn some fuel, to lose weight, before taking off. Then, up we went, and over the edge of the plateau! An experience Iâ€™ll never forget. See the video below.
Back at the operations base, we breathed thicker, warmer air and we shook hands with the three rescue staff and two pilots who had come to get us. Dan and I check in with Eric, who told us, â€œI wish we had descended.â€�
I forgive him because his brain was far from its normal condition.
The rescue team refueled both machines from a 50-gallon drum and we loaded heaps of duffel bags, skis, and our own gear inside. Then we lifted off again for a stunning flight across the icefield.
|Eric and Dan on the flight back to Haines Junction|
Eric declined medical treatment at the Haines Junction clinic.
We went to the local bar to get burgers and beers. We didnâ€™t talk about what had happened. I tried to be happy and thankful that we were all alive and back to safety, but I felt Eric was angry. He watched the hockey game on TV and didn’t say much.
That night was a highlight of the trip. Eric slept in the front seat of the car while Dan and I laid our sleeping bags out under the stars. We talked for a long time about what happened. Around midnight, the aurora came out. Bright green rays danced across the sky for hours!! We stayed up to at least 2 AM watching the sky, chatting from the comfort of our sleeping bags, and absorbing plenty of oxygen with each breath.
|Sleeping out under the aurora near Haines Junction the night after our rescue.|
In the morning, we debriefed the rescue with Parks Canada staff and drove 11.5 hours back to Anchorage. Midway, at a pee stop, Eric called us over with a wave of his hand and said, â€œGentleman, I apologize for putting your lives at risk.â€� After a short pause, he said, â€œThatâ€™s it. As you were.â€�
I really appreciated the apology.
Ericâ€™s brother bought him a flight to Chicago, where he stayed for a week. Then he had an appointment scheduled with a high altitude doctor in Seattle. Dan and I spent close to a week in Anchorage relaxing and then went on a low-risk skiing-packrafting expedition in the Alaska Range for two weeks.
Overall, this trip was an invaluable learning experience for me. One primary takeaway was that I should trust my gut feelings. I ignored a variety of concerns that, given the consequences associated with our objective, led to serious problems. Another is that being “big mountain smart” requires a lot of experience. Now, I’ve done five “big” mountain expeditions (over three months traveling on those mountains) and I now know what I don’t know, which is a critical step in making well-informed decisions.
Here is a list of my assessment of our strengths and areas for improvement:
- Our technical skills (climbing, skiing, snow science, gear repair, winter camping, etc.) were more than sufficient;
- We had our logistics dialed in well (emergency communication plan, two acclimatization schedules, food, gear, etc.);
- We had a high level of trust in each other.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
- More open and honest communication. This was our largest weakness;
- We had no plan B or C, which made anything but plan A seem like a failure;
- Even though Dan took a Wilderness First Responder recertification course immediately before our trip and Eric was Wilderness First Responder certified, we had a poor understanding of HACE, HAPE, and altitude medications. Worse, I knew far less than they did. In the future, I’d do lots of research on altitude health issues;
- Our physical performance suggested that Eric and I should have done considerably more training. Dan was in excellent shape from ski guiding all winter at elevation in Colorado. I was working 40+ hours per week in an office job. If doing a similarly dangerous and challenging trip like this in the future, Iâ€™d place a large emphasis on training.
- We did not discuss our medical history. This was a big mistake;
- We didnâ€™t discuss leadership roles. On this trip, we didnâ€™t need a dedicated leader, but it would have been wise to determine who leads decision-making for certain subjects and situations;
- We didnâ€™t have an adequate system to ensure everyone had their gear and food prepared by the time we met up in Anchorage;
- Dan underestimated the East Ridge. He later said that the ridge was much more difficult to protect and scary than he expected. We also had poor snow conditions, which contributed to his post-trip assessment;
- I could have been more compassionate;
- We did not have a medical consultant. Using my mother as the medical contact was very stressful for her. On all future expeditions or risky trips, I will have a medical professional serve as the consultant for any issues that arise on our trip;
- Communicating with lots of people via InReach was stressful and degraded the experience of being in a wild place. In the future, I may consider communicating only with an in-town contact person.