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Ranger Discusses Mount McKinley Rescue


Tucker, it sounds like a pretty busy night you had last Monday.

TUCKER CHENOWETH: Yeah. We were busy. That's for sure.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that first rescue that you stumbled upon. All of these rescues weren't called or radioed in. You found these people. Who was the first one?

CHENOWETH: We found a Serbian guy that was kind of stumbling around. We encountered him kind of off of the summit ridge, down in the big summit plateau we call the football field.

BLOCK: And you knew he was in trouble right away?

CHENOWETH: Yeah. He was - when people suffer from HACE or high- altitude cerebral edema, they walk around like they're drunk, and that's what this guy was doing.

BLOCK: So you called in the rescue helicopter. What happened?

CHENOWETH: Yeah. We took that guy. We were originally just going to try to use a rope technique we call short roping and try to get him down on his own power. We started him down the ridge and realized right away he wasn't going to make it, so called in the helicopter, which happened to be doing some work down around the base camp, so we called them in to evacuate this guy.

BLOCK: Using something, I gather, called a screamer suit. What's that?


CHENOWETH: Yeah. I can only imagine what people think of when they think of the screamer suit, but it's a large diaper, basically, that fits your arms and your legs. It attaches to a 150-foot long line off the bottom of the helicopter, and we put the patient into this thing. And then the helicopter just picks him up and takes him away.

BLOCK: Wow. I guess we can just imagine why it's called the screamer suit. He's getting rescued from 19,300 feet.

CHENOWETH: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: OK. So that's the first rescue. And then, separately, you come across two other climbers. The first one is a Japanese climber who approaches you. Also suffering altitude sickness?

CHENOWETH: Yes. So before this guy got evacuated, we were just doing a medical check on him. And as this was happening, this Japanese team came through. And when they got, you know, jeez, it was only like 40 yards from us, the lead climber on that rope team just stopped and then he fell over. And so we had our second patient.



BLOCK: So you now have two climbers in distress, airlifted off the mountain, and then you find a third climber, also a Japanese climber, unconscious in the snow. Was there at some point in which you just said I can't believe that I'm arranging three helicopter rescues in one night?

CHENOWETH: Sure, yeah. I told the guys when I radioed down for the third helicopter, I believe, I even said you're not going to believe this. We have a third patient and...

BLOCK: And what did they say?

CHENOWETH: I kind of paused and let it sink in for those guys and you know? And it was what it was. They said, OK, where is he?

BLOCK: And a pretty amazing performance from the helicopter pilot here.

CHENOWETH: Yeah. You know, I hate to think of what it would've been like had we not have the use of the helicopter that night. I'd like to think that we'd work it out, but three patients with our team up that high, I just don't think the outcome would have been as big a success if the helicopter couldn't have flown.

BLOCK: Well, Tucker, I hope you've had a chance to rest, and I gather, you're trying - you're down off the mountain. You're trying to get back up there, but weather is keeping you...


BLOCK: ...down there in Talkeetna. Is that right?

CHENOWETH: Yeah. We're lucky this interview was able to happen. I - we're trying to get back in and do a little personal climbing, my wife and I, so we're waiting for the weather to break, but it gave me a chance to talk to you.

BLOCK: Great. Well, I'm glad I had it. Thank you, Tucker. And have fun up there.


BLOCK: That's mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth speaking with us from the ranger station in Talkeetna, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.