AN Irish climber has escaped death after a dramatic high-altitude rescue near the summit of one of the world’s most treacherous mountains.
And another Irish climber is recovering from frostbite after disaster struck their group while scaling North America’s highest mountain, the 20,320 foot Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska, last week.
The accident, which claimed the life of a Swiss national, is now under investigation.
The Denali National Park Service said it is debriefing the survivors and it has set up a Serious Accident Investigation Team.
Jerry O’Sullivan, 41, from Ballinhassig, Co Cork, and Tony Diskin, 33, from Westmeath, were part of a guided team climbing the mountain last week.
Mr Diskin suffered frostbite to his hands and turned back with one of the team’s guides last Wednesday. He was evacuated from a camp at 14,200ft on Thursday.
But four men continued — three climbers including Mr O’Sullivan, Swiss national, Beat Niederer, 38, from St Gallen, Lawrence Cutler, 45, of Croton-on-Hudson, New York — and their experienced guide Dave Staeheli, 56, of Wasilla, Alaska.
Denali Park Rangers said they were roped together, and were heading down from the summit when they slipped and fell late on Wednesday or early Thursday morning.
Mr O’Sullivan broke a leg. Mr Staeheli ordered Cutler and Niederer down to a ‘high camp’, at 17,200ft, while he stabilised Mr O’Sullivan.
Mr Staeheli managed to get him down to a flat expanse at 19,500ft known as the Football Field and secure him a bivy sack, or light sleeping bag, before he headed down to the high camp.
But when he arrived there some hours later, he discovered that Cutler and Niederer hadn’t made it.
Another team of climbers based at the camp raised the alarm via satellite phone.
Meanwhile, Mr O’Sullivan was waiting at 19,500ft, in temperatures ranging between -25C and -35C, for rescuers to get to him. He suffered severe frostbite to his hands, legs and face.
His eventual rescue by helicopter after almost 14 hours has tied the record for the highest-ever such rescue in North America, and it is the highest on Denali using the special ‘short-haul’ technique.
Pilot Andy Hermansky hovered 200ft above him in his specialised A-Star B3 high-altitude helicopter and lowered a basket.
Mr O’Sullivan hauled himself in and dangled below the aircraft as Hermansky eased it down the mountain at about 1,000ft a minute in an effort to prevent him suffering more frostbite.
“It was a big deal,” Hermansky said.
At the 7,200ft Kahiltna base camp, park service rangers transferred Mr O’Sullivan to a waiting LifeMed air ambulance that flew him to Anchorage.
He was reported to be in “good condition” at Providence Alaska Medical Centre last night, hospital spokeswoman Ginger Houghton said.
Search teams recovered Mr Niederer’s body by helicopter at about 18,000ft late on Thursday. His cause of death was not immediately determined.
Mr Staeheli, who suffered from frostbite to his hands and feet and a broken rib sustained in another fall, and Mr Cutler, who had frostbite to his hands and feet, were airlifted out from a camp at 17,200ft on Friday.
Mr Staeheli is among Alaska’s finest climbers. He works for the company Mountain Trip, and is renowned as the first climber to complete a solo winter ascent of McKinley up the West Rib route in March 1989.
Weather conditions on the mountain were brutal at the time with winds gusting up to 110km/h.
Mountaineering ranger and medic, Dave Weber, said the climbing party was high up on the mountain and on an exposed ridge with no shelter when the fall occurred.
“It was brutal conditions out there. It was an extremely hostile environment,” he said.
Mr O’Sullivan and Mr Diskin were both part of Irish adventurer Pat Falvey’s 2008 Beyond Endurance expedition to the South Pole.
Last night, Mr Falvey described them both as “experienced climbers” who knew the risks of climbing high-altitude mountains.
“The main thing is that they are OK. Jerry is a quiet guy — very competent, very capable. Climbing big high-altitude mountains is a dangerous, high-risk activity and accidents can happen.”
But he said from initial unconfirmed reports, he has serious concerns about certain issues.
He is trying to establish whether the team’s guides were fully equipped with all the proper safety and communications equipment, and he was trying to make contact with two men.
It is understood that Annie, the Anchorage-based partner of the late Irish mountaineer, Ger McDonnell, who died after a fall on K2, and who also travelled on expeditions with Mr Falvey, is liaising with hospital authorities.
The Swiss climber’s death was the first on Denali this year since its climbing season began on May 1.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved