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Alaska 2024 – A Time to Remember…

25 years can feel like a lifetime, or like an instant.  My rescue took over a day, yet I only remember fleeting moments as the cold took control of my mind, and its bitter grasp mists memories and slows reflection.  I thought I knew it all, yet I still had so much to learn.  Heading back to Alaska might help clear the clouds and reveal icy truths buried deep in my soul.

I returned to Alaska with Helen and the Lemonzest Events team of, Dave, Sam and Alex.  The plan was to meet again some of the people I owe my life too, fly over Denali and reflect on the last 25 years.

Jet lag is never a friend, but we had little time to rest.  Thankfully a few days with family in Alberta was helping, but we only landed hours before the real work began.  After a huge breakfast of reindeer, eggs and pancakes (welcome to Alaska!), I met with Janet Asaro, who was the press officer in hospital in 1999.  She shielded us from the demands of the media, at a time when we were beaten up, exhausted and confused.   Protection comes in many shapes and sizes.  I’ve worked with the press for over 30 years, but your health is paramount, and I owe a great deal to Janet for her sterling help.  She now works at the Anchorage Museum, and though we could only meet for a short time, our smiles said it all.  

The afternoon was spent with the delightful Daryl Miller.  You will never meet such a charming, quiet and reflective man who has been there, done it and got the medals – literally.  Daryl, along with helicopter pilot Jim Hood was prepared to risk everything to save us.  The Llama helicopter was at its maximum altitude ceiling when we were short hauled to safety.  A brief lull in the weather allowed Jim to power check the helicopter and I’ll never forget the moment he popped through the clouds like Excalibur from the lake and took us to safety.  In a world of people who constantly demand ‘look at me’, you’ll never find such a wonderful human being.  He is a legend in Alaska, and everyone speaks so highly of him.  Daryl and his wife Judy couldn’t help enough with contacts and ideas throughout the trip.  I’m honoured to know him, have the opportunity to thank him and call him a friend.  It was time to head north along Alaska Route 1 and base ourselves near the town of Talkeetna.

I was so glad to have a professional team along.  They had taken care of the contacts, interviews and timescales.  Initially I’d intended to make a documentary with friends, but the amount of work would have been too much.  Professionals cost money and I’m so thankful to Grangers for sponsoring large part of the trip.

The world has changed a great deal in 25 years.  Talkeetna has filled with gift shops and there are more tourist agencies, but many memories remain.  The bars, the famed ‘Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Talkeetna’ sign and the Historical Society.  I posed against the sign 25 years ago and stood there again, although I get the feeling (like the proverbial yard brush), it’s had all its woodwork changed a few times in-between.  The Historical Society houses a beautiful display of mountaineering history and a huge model of Denali.  I stared at the West Rib and lost myself for a few moments.  A single mountain and a single route that almost killed me, but also gave me a great springboard, from which I’ve never stopped flying.

We spent the afternoon with Roger Robinson, a long-standing Park Ranger and friend of Daryl’s, who explained much about the range, its dangers and its desires.  He is a pioneer in cleaning up the mountains and every mountaineer must take ‘Clean Mountain Cans’ – other mountain ranges take note.  Here was another quiet spoken man who lives in the woods, in a house built by himself and his wife.  What wonderful people the mountains attract.

It was here that the best laid plans began to unravel.  Weather is everything in the mountains.  If we think we can resist its force, then we’d better take a long look at ourselves.  The plan was to fly over the range and land on the Ruth Glacier on the 19th of May 2024.  This would be 25 years to the day of our summit attempt.  Sadly, the clouds rolled in.  The staff at Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) were as frustrated as we were, but realistic too.  Their work is guided by the weather and there’s nothing anyone can do.  It was here however that the best laid plans might have failed, but much better was to come.

We woke the next morning to clear skies and wide smiles.  We were on for a flight, but also bumped into Annie.  By compete chance, the Annie who greeted us in Base Camp, all those years ago was still working at Talkeetna Air Taxi and gave us a very insightful interview.  She said that being stuck on the Football Field was the very worst place to be and we were extremely lucky to have been rescued.  Don’t I know it..!

Within the hour we boarded the DeHavilland Otter and rumbled down the tarmac, before Will (the pilot), lifted the nose and cleared the trees.  At last, the moment had come, and it was 25 years to the day of the rescue.  Lakes and trees were replaced with moraine and ice as we neared the Alaska Range.  Dominating the horizon was Denali herself, flanked by the peaks of Mt’s Hunter and Foraker.  The weather couldn’t have been better.  I was asked about my thoughts for the documentary.  It’s hard to put such things into words as I felt overwhelmed.  My mind was a miss mash of happiness and grief, love and hate and everything in-between.  So much water had run under the bridge since that fateful day, but I was happy to be there, picking routes out as we circled, and commentating for the documentary.

Here’s a video of the flight…

The initial plan was to land on the Ruth Glacier, but a landing site could not be found, so Will put us down at Base Camp.  The Otters engine fell silent, and the mountains looked down upon us.  Little had changed over the years.  Climbers were still digging in to protect themselves from storms, and I prayed for their safe return.  The sun was burning and the snow soft.  I knelt and squeezed my hands into a drift, using my wet palms to grasp my expedition diary from 25 years before.  It had returned with me and was marked by the mountain for a second time.  I looked up and in memory of my mum, I silently recited the Lords Prayer, before we boarded the plane and headed out of the range.  It was on the return leg that the world caught up with me.  Tears ran down my face as I filled with guilt – the guilt of all the pain I had put my family through.  My Dad was lost, but being an Englishman, he maintained a stiff upper lip.  My Mum however showed her emotions, and I remembered the time I underwent my first operation.  It was to remove the fingers from my right hand.  When I came out of surgery, she was there, crying.  I desperately tried to stay awake for her, but the drugs were too powerful.  She handed me a bear, complete with crutch and plastered leg, which I still have to this day.  They cared for me and in later life, I cared for them.

We touched down and thanked the TAT staff for all their help, before driving south to Anchorage for our last interview.  We met Connie Jenson in town and sat talking for the afternoon.  She was a pain nurse and treated me when I arrived in Hospital.  I remember her changing IV bags, but what I didn’t know was that she had spoken with medical staff in Finland, and I had the 1st twin epidural for frostbite in North America.  It was hoped that these two lines would not only relieve the pain, but also allow a better long-term recovery for my limbs.  All I can say is that something worked, and I’ve been climbing ever since.

And so, the filming was done.  Time to rest and spend a few days unwinding before home.  I like to fish, and we booked onto a boat trip out of Seward, looking for halibut and rockfish.  I knew I suffered sea sickness and filled myself with medication, but it did little, and I couldn’t even lift a rod.  That, combined with food poisoning meant I came home feeling under the weather.

Some things never change…

My thanks to Terra Nova Equipment for supporting this trip with gear to protect my Extremities.

PS – I have received several personal messages which have brought me to tears.  This is not a place for names, it’s a place where friends have shown their true colours, and I thank every one of them from the bottom of my heart.

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