Vicious cold burned my gasping lungs as I strained to pull oxygen from the mountain air.  Rescuing this unconscious climber from the upper slopes of Mount McKinley (20,320 feet) would push us to our physical limits, and maybe far past our safety margin.  The risks were huge, and the plan uncertain, so my partners and I set one iron-clad rule: We stick together.

When things go bad at high altitude, they go bad fast.  Storms boil up.  Seemingly healthy people suddenly collapse.  Because problems emerge with such vigor, everyone needs a backup.  You are there for your partner.  Your partner is there for you.

Jim Davidson on Denali

Jim Davidson at 18,200 feet shortly before the rescue began on Denali in Alaska

Not being with a partner is precisely why we were now in a desperate fight to get Josh, the ill solo climber,  down the icy slopes of McKinley (also called Denali, the highest peak in North America).  Josh had taken medications that rendered him unsteady, then unconscious.  A dedicated partner would have seen this problem coming on and led Josh down before it became serious.  Instead, Josh spent the night out, alone, in the snow at 19,700 feet with temperatures about minus 25 F.

Rodney and Terry tend to the patient (yellow hood inside the red & purple emergency bivouac sack).

He was frostbitten and any of his three major health issues could kill him in the next few hours.We seven exhausted climbers on scene made up a tiny and overwhelmed rescue team.  We were driven to evacuate  Josh before the fluid pressure building in his lungs and brain killed him.  But, we knew that above all else, we had to stick together.  Decades of climbing had drilled into us:

– Stand by your partner in good times and in bad to build trust and encourage progress.

– Reassure your partner that you are sticking with them so they remain calm and focused on solving the problem.

– Today, you help your partner out. Tomorrow, your partner helps when you are struggling.

After several cold, dangerous hours, we finally clipped our patient to the haul line dangling from beneath a high-altitude rescue helicopter.  I watched the chopper whisk Josh off the mountain toward a hospital, where he would survive.

Turning around, I looked into the weary, but composed faces of my veteran climbing friends.  I felt very fortunate to have such solid partners and to know now with even greater conviction that we would stick together.