Note: This is part two of a 10-part story, which will be released weekly. Visit Ordinary Heroes to find the other parts as they are released.
Unless you’re part of a search and rescue team, you don’t head out for the day expecting to be thrust into a life-or-death situation. Heroism, like the accidents and epics that might prompt it, is something you can’t plan for.
Yet because of experience and training, innate ability and fortitude, or just instinctive reactions in moments of crisis, average climbers can respond to deadly emergencies in extraordinary ways. With courage, calm, stamina, strength, and ingenuity, on a day when nobody expected anything but the simple pleasures of climbing, they end up saving a life.
What would you do in a similar situation? How would you perform? Research psychologists have determined that heroes share a few common traits: Many are open to new experiences, dependable and disciplined, extroverted, compassionate, and emotionally secure. They usually have strong feelings of morality and responsibility. In addition, according to a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal, “Heroes tend by nature to be hopeful, believing events will turn out well. They consciously try to keep fear from hampering their pursuit of goals, and they tend to block out the possibility of injury or material loss.” They sound a lot like climbers.
We combed through dozens of stories of climbers helping other climbers to find the five amazing examples reported here. Hopefully you’ll never have to respond to a similar crisis. But if the proverbial shit hits the fan, it just might help to know that other climbers have been there before.
Part 2: Going for Help
Mt. Augusta, Yukon Territory
The “brotherhood of the rope” is the unspoken bond between climbing partners who trust each other with their lives. But what happens when the best way to aid your stricken partner is to leave him behind?
Twelve pitches up a 7,000-foot new route on the north face of Mt. Augusta, a 14,072-foot, seldom-climbed peak in the St. Elias Range, on the border of Alaska and the Yukon, Charlie Sassara and Jack Tackle were looking for a place to rest. The climb was going well, but there was a growing problem: It was getting warm, and melting ice had begun launching rock missiles around them. At around 8 p.m., as Tackle was probing for a ledge about 60 feet above Sassara, a block the size of a briefcase fell from high above and smashed into his back.
Tackle cartwheeled off the face. Although Sassara held his fall, Tackle was partially paralyzed and felt severe pain in his chest and abdomen. (Doctors later determined he had a broken back and neck, bruised spinal cord and other nerves, torn cartilage, and severe contusions.) Sassara lowered Tackle to the belay stance, spun him upright, anchored him to the wall, and set to work stabilizing his partner. He chopped a shoulder-width ledge and pulled a sleeping bag and tent over the injured man. Throughout the night he pumped fluids, food, and painkillers into Tackle, all the while working out how they could both get down the mountain.
Both men had experienced the other side of the coin in such a situation. Fifteen years earlier, Sassara and his climbing partner, Dave McGivern, were avalanched near the foot of Mt. Johnson in Alaska, and in the ensuing tumble, the rope wrapped around Sassara’s neck and nearly choked him to death. McGivern had to resuscitate his partner before they could descend. Twenty-three years before the accident on Augusta, Tackle was the one with a seriously injured partner high on a mountain: Ken Currens had taken a 250-foot fall on a new route on Denali and suffered a head injury and broken femur. Tackle had to downclimb the face and ski 10 miles along a glacier, unroped, to call for help.
On Augusta, Sassara said, he recognized the enormity of the situation yet remained focused on the steps that would give them the best chance of surviving. “Once past the adrenaline rush, there is simply the work,” he explained. “I segmented it into phases: take care of Jack, get down the face, get to our skis, get to camp. I said to myself, I’m not going to think about all of it now. I’m just going to think about this phase. And if I have the opportunity to think about the next one, I’ll deal with it then.’”
At first Sassara assumed the next phase would be lowering Tackle down the wall. “I could visualize every anchor and the problems associated with each, how I was going to lower him, and everything else I’d have to do,” he recalled. “Yet I had a real sense that it would probably be fatal to both of us, whether because of rockfall or poor anchors.”
Tackle spared him that thought. “You can’t do that,” the injured man groaned. “I can’t do it. The best option is for you to go down by yourself and get to the sat phone in our tent.”
After doing everything he could to prepare Tackle for a long wait for help, Sassara checked his anchor and clipped into his rappel device. “Travel safe,” Tackle said to him. At 6:30 a.m. Sassara began rappelling.
It took him five hours to make 13 rappels to the glacier, using nearly all of their gear and segments of their ropes to build anchors. A temperature inversion had hit the mountain, and “the wall was coming unglued,” Sassara said. “It was like rappelling into a melting gravel pit.” Despite the hazards of falling rocks and concern for the state of his stranded partner, he took great care with every step. “It was the discipline of the work—not cheating, not compromising—that kept me safe,” he explained. “Testing everything, planning where to go, hiding in safe places, and timing rockfall.”
After a final rappel down an ice pitch that was now the consistency of a vanilla slushy, Sassara faced an unroped glacier traverse over sagging snow bridges to reach his skis. While climbing, the climbers had watched an active icefall obliterate the route he would have to cross. But the 45-year-old remained confident. Back at the bivy site, when Tackle asked how he was doing, Sassara’s response was, “Don’t worry, I am the strongest motherfucker on the planet.” On the glacier, he recalled, “I had the notion that if it meant walking to Seattle I would do it. The limitation was time, not my determination.”
Sassara carefully crawled and leaped through a minefield of holes and drooping snow bridges. He took his time, even pausing at the edge of one crevasse to admire the “gorgeous abyss” and the spectrum of icy light inside: black, blue, violet, and white. “It was super-quiet at that time of morning, and I felt like my senses were heightened,” he said. “I felt like I could almost hear the holes.”
Fog had rolled in by the time he reached his skis, and he could see no more than 100 feet ahead. He left the skins on the skis so he could move down the glacier slowly and ever-so-carefully, navigating by the summit of Mt. Logan looming above the clouds. In midafternoon, eight hours after leaving Tackle, he reached the tent and called Kluane National Park and his then-wife, Siri Moss, to raise the alarm.
Tackle would be alone on the face for more than 30 hours before a helicopter crew from the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard spotted him through a break in the clouds. They lowered pararescuer Dave Shuman at the end of a swinging 170-foot wire and plucked Tackle from the face, with low-fuel warning lights flashing inside the chopper.
Sassara emphasized that he was only one person among many who took risks and worked tirelessly to save Tackle’s life. “The reason we got out is because our friends pulled out all the stops,” he said. “Siri and Lloyd Freese and the Kluane National Park staff. Daryl Miller at Denali National Park, who secured permission for the U.S. military to conduct operations in Canada within one hour. The crew on board that helicopter, including pilot Rick Watson, flight engineer Tom Dietrich, Denali ranger Joe Reichert, and pararescue jumper Dave Shuman. Ultima Thule pilot Paul Claus flying over in his own plane and radioing when the weather broke. Climbers Mike Alkaitis, Colby Coombs, and Kelly Cordes, who flew to Yakutat, prepared to climb the wall if the helicopter couldn’t get in. All of this was possible because we had dear friends who loved us and trusted that we would not call for help unless it was really, really necessary. All I had to do was not fuck up.”
Charlie Sassara, a native Alaskan, cofounded the Alaska Rock Gym and served as president of the American Alpine Club in 2012 and 2013. Jack Tackle, a longtime mountain guide and gear rep based in Bozeman, Montana, has continued to put up new routes around the world. In 2003 the AAC honored both men for their rescues of fellow climbers with the David A. Sowles Memorial Award (see below). The U.S. Air Force gave Sergeant Dave Shuman the Airman’s Medal for his bravery.
The Sowles Award—Established in 1981 in memory of a 29-year-old climber killed by lightning in the Alps, the American Alpine Club’s David A. Sowles Memorial Award “is conferred from time to time on mountaineers who have distinguished themselves, with unselfish devotion at personal risk or sacrifice of a major objective, in going to the assistance of fellow climbers imperiled in the mountains.” In 33 years, the award has been given only 16 times. In addition to Charlie Sassara and Jack Tackle, honorees include Ed Viesturs, Anatoli Boukreev, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, and the 1953 American team on K2. Learn more: americanalpineclub.org/p/sowles-award. //