Rescue Crew Honored for Life-Saving Actions on Mt. McKinley

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Date: May 19, 2008
Contact: Maureen McLaughlin, (907) 733-9103

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne hosted the 65th Honor Awards Convocation on May 13th in Washington, D.C., recognizing 92 staff and private citizens for their dedication, bravery, and service to the Department of the Interior. In addition to courageous rescues, Kempthorne also recognized the "everyday heroes" who help endangered species, develop innovative programs, or maintain accurate records. Included among this year’s award winners were seven rescuers nominated by Denali National Park and Preserve for their heroic actions during a 2004 rescue on Mt. McKinley.

A Group Valor Award was presented to National Park Service (NPS) rangers David Bywater, Christopher Harder, Reynold (Renny) Jackson, John McConnell, and Steven Rickert. These five former or current climbing rangers from Grand Teton National Park were working on a temporary detail assignment in Denali National Park and Preserve in May 2004, cross-training in mountain search and rescue and assisting a short-staffed Denali rescue crew. In addition to this NPS patrol, British climbers Neil McNab and Andrew Perkins were instrumental in the life-saving rescue and were honored with the Department of Interior Citizen’s Award for Bravery.

On May 20, 2004, these seven individuals risked their lives to save Korean climber Ho Cho, who sustained severe head injuries in a fall on Mt. McKinley’s West Buttress. While his partner descended for help, Cho endured a shelterless night at 18,200 feet. Extreme weather turned back two rescue attempts by Cho’s teammates. Alerted by radio, rangers at the 14,200-foot camp mobilized a rescue team consisting of Bywater, Harder, Jackson, McConnell, Rickert, McNab, and Perkins. The team reached the 17,200-foot high camp in just over three hours, a remarkable demonstration of strength and stamina given the elevation, technical terrain, and whiteout conditions. Rickert and Bywater initially remained to erect dome tents and construct snow walls for protection from high winds, an effort that later proved critical to the survival of both Cho and the rescuers. Meanwhile, their teammates began the climb to Denali Pass. Cho was found 800 feet below the Pass on the Harper Glacier. Semi-conscious and severely frostbitten, he was bundled up, placed in a sled, and dragged back up to the Pass.

The team then faced a series of time-consuming technical rope lowerings to the 17,200-foot camp in gale-force winds, arctic temperatures, and driving snow. With time of the essence, Jackson placed a single ice axe as an initial anchor. Harder and McConnell attended the litter while the British volunteers established the next anchor system. The patient was carefully lowered down the steep, treacherous terrain, and then transferred to the next system, a leapfrogging method repeatedly employed for several hours. Soon after the lowering started, Bywater and Rickert rejoined the team, providing crucial relief for exhausted teammates. Visibility at this time was often less than 100 feet, and the avalanche hazard steadily increased. The entire rescue team finally reached the temporary safety of the high camp shelter after eighteen hours of grueling and dangerous work. During the night, Rickert and Harder provided constant medical care to the patient. More bad weather the following day forced the team to complete a 3,000-foot technical rope lowering to the 14,200-foot camp, from where Cho was evacuated a day later.

Without this team’s selfless efforts, there is no doubt Cho would have perished. "I am so proud of our employees," said National Park Service Director Mary Bomar. "Their dedication, service, and bravery are inspirational and deserving of these high honors."

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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