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Rescuers free climber from ‘chimney of ice’ on Alaska glacier

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Denali National Park mountaineering ranger Frank Preston was gearing up to rescue a mountain climber sick on North America’s tallest mountain when a second call for help arrived.

A man descending Denali on Monday had slipped into a crevasse on Kahlitna Glacier. The man was conscious but badly hurt. Fellow climbers lowered a rope, but the force of his fall pushed him through constricted spaces just inches wide.

“The walls of the crevasse were pretty smooth ice, so not a lot of friction,” Preston said. “When he fell, in there, he had enough speed and force that he was able to slide down through skinnier places than we could squeeze people down there.”

It was a rescue scenario Preston had not trained for, but 15 hours later, rangers and volunteer mountaineers succeeded. Lowered into a crevasse too narrow to turn their heads, rescuers opened a hole wide enough to pull out Martin Takac, 38, of Trmava, Slovakia.

“There was a lot of manual labor just chipping away at that ice to make a 6-inch wide crack into a 12-inch-wide crack,” Preston said.

The rescue, he said, was, “Not for the claustrophobic.”

Takac was flown to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital in critical condition with suspected trauma injuries and severe hypothermia. Also flown off the mountain Monday was They Michael Metzler, 23, of Carnation, Washington, the solo climber who fell ill.

Takac had been part of a larger party, Preston said, and apparently reached the 20,310-foot summit of Denali a day or two earlier. He was descending with one other climber when he fell into the glacier at 7,800 feet. Takac’s partner summoned guides nearby, who called rangers.

Preston and another mountaineering ranger, Chris Erickson, reached the glacier at 4 a.m. It was light enough to see without headlamps, Preston said. The helicopter pilot took off for Kahiltna Base Camp at 7,200 feet and returned with another ranger and two volunteer mountaineers with climbing or medical expertise who assist with rescues.

The crevasse was just 3 feet wide at the surface and narrowed as rescuers descended, Preston said.

“For every few feet you went down, it constricted another few inches, or even more in places,” Preston said.

Rescuers worked in shifts, mostly one at a time, lowered by a rope and pulley system down the crevasse, planning ahead where they would widen an opening to Takac. Preston described it as a chimney of ice.

“They couldn’t turn their head. They couldn’t turn their hips. They couldn’t move their foot,” Preston said. “Once you were pointed in one direction with your face or with your feet, you could not move without coming out of the crevasse.”

The helicopter pilot flew the solo climber, Metzler, to an ambulance at Talkeetna. Bad weather kept the helicopter on the ground for a few hours. When conditions improved Monday afternoon, the pilot flew back to the crevasse with three more rescuers and a pneumatic hammer-chisel loaned by the Talkeetna Volunteer Fire Department.

Rescuers reached Takac shortly after noon. He had remained conscious throughout the rescue. It took another three hours to free him, Preston said.

Low snow on the lower Kahiltna Glacier has left open crevasses that are hard to detect, the park service said.

Takac’s rescue was the second from a Denali crevasse this year of a person not roped to others. A climber fell May 26 a bit lower on the mountain.

As of Monday, the park service had registered 1,084 mountaineers to climb Denali this year, and 527 were on the mountain. The agency said 386 climbers had completed their climbs, and 122 people had reached the top.

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