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Steve Howe's Rescue Call from Denali

The anatomy of a (near) disaster

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TEN DAYS AGO, as he was boarding a plane for Anchorage on his way to climb Mt. McKinley, Backpacker Rocky Mountain editor Steve Howe called me from the Salt Lake City airport. On his third attempt to climb 20,320-foot McKinley, North America’s highest (and coldest) peak, he said he would be carrying a SPOT Satellite Messenger, an internet tracking beacon that can send SOS calls via email or text message.

“You’re my secondary emergency contact,” he told me. “If my wife, Jen, doesn’t see the SOS message, I’m counting on you to get the choppers in the air.” Then, being Steve, he reeled off a few deadpan wisecracks and signed off — without telling me who to call or what to say if I actually received a SPOT message calling for help. (Who am I? Jon Dorn, editor-in-chief of Backpacker and a longtime friend of Steve’s.)

At the time, the oversight seemed insignificant: Steve is one of the toughest, safest, and least ego-driven mountaineers I know. He’s climbed and skied all over the world, including a successful solo of McKinley and a few first telemark descents in South America. He once spent 60 days alone paddling across Alaska, encountering bears, disorienting weather, and high water. He was in top shape, having trained all winter with heavily loaded hikes and runs in Capitol Reef National Park and on Boulder Mountain, both out his back door in Torrey, Utah. Plus, he would be climbing with a partner this time: Sibusiso Vilane, a South African who’s climbed Everest and skiied to the South Pole. Steve wrote about Sibu and their plans for McKinley, in his last post.

Then, last night …

5:46 pm MST: Steve’s SPOT Satellite Messenger, which earned an Editors’ Choice Award from Backpacker just a few months ago, generates an email to Jen and me. I’m in a meeting; Jen is at home in Torrey, but the phone and internet lines are down there. Neither of us sees the message. (To read about the SPOT and how it works, click here.)

6:13 pm MST: My meeting ends, I throw a handful of blueberries in my mouth — and nearly choke on them when I see the message. The subject line reads: HELP ESN: 0-7341071. I know it’s a distress call from Steve, but not the full-on 911 option that indicates dire, life-threatening danger. In those cases, the SPOT transmits a message to a global rescue hotline that in turn alerts local authorities. This is SPOT’s second-level message, the one that goes to his personal emergency contacts (Jen and me), and indicates a need for help out of a serious but not extreme situation. I take a deep breath and open the email. Here’s what it says:

Steve Howe is injured or immobilized & cannot proceed, but has no immediate life-threatening condition. Evac please



Nearest Location: Kantishna, United States

Distance: 50 km(s)

Time:06/09/2008 18:20:44 (US/Mountain),-151.0691&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

6:15 pm MST: Holy crap. Try not to hyperventilate. Find the number for the Denali National Park climbing rangers. Shit shit shit, Steve is the kind of guy who’d be in a world of hurt before he pulled the ripcord on a rescue. A Backpacker editor getting carried off McKinley, he’d be thinking … not unless I can’t walk.

6:16 pm MST: Goddamn it, where is that phone number?! Okay, here. Ringing. Crap, the main switchboard is closed … what kind of hours do they work in that national park? Okay, hold it together, man, he needs you to be sane.

6:17 pm MST: “Denali National Park, Talkeetna Ranger District, Mike speaking.” Finally, the climbing rangers, then a flood of relief as I realize it’s Mike Gauthier. I climbed Rainier with him several years ago when he was head climbing ranger there. He knows Steve, and he’s one of the very, very best at plucking climbers off high mountains. We’re in good hands.

6:18 pm MST: Mike is calm — just what I need — and all business. He puts me on speakerphone so the three other rangers in the room can hear and expertly collects all of the information I have. I read him the GPS coordinate from the SPOT device that indicates Steve’s location when he sent the distress call, then forward the email and a url for a map showing Steve’s progress in recent days. Mike wishes there was more information — like his current status, the extent of the injuries, even whether it was Sibu or Steve who’d gone down –, but we both marvel at how quickly and efficiently searches can unfold in the digital age. In less than three minutes, his team is in action.

6:19 pm MST: I try calling Jen, but the phones are down. I know she’s going to freak out when she sees the message — because I did, and because she got wigged out when Steve had to bivy in a snowcave above 17,000 feet for four days while a storm raged on a previous visit. She knows the mountain is deadly: Never mind the steep sections and avalanches — the weather up there, even in June, can turn from warm and sunny to -30 below with 100 mph winds in mere hours.

6:22 pm MST: Still no Jen.

6:25 pm MST: “Jon, this is Mike. The GPS coordinate is just below high camp, which is at 17,200 feet. Maybe only a few hundred feet. I wonder why he hasn’t been able to get into camp?” Uh, yeah … maybe because he broke his femur and is hanging upside-down from a fixed line? My mind races with disastrous possibilities. How will I explain this to Jen?

6:26 pm MST: Mike snaps me out of my nightmare. “This is actually really good news. Today, there were somewhere between 50 and 100 climbers passing through high camp, and right now there’s a ranger team coming down from the summit. So we have a lot of manpower up there.” Mike tells me the weather is warm and stable, and I realize there’s a ton of light that far north just two weeks before summer solstice — maybe as much as 20 hours of sun right now. Conditions couldn’t be better for a summit — or a rescue.

6:28 pm MST: Mike explains the next steps. His team is already working the radios to get ahold of the descending rangers and other climbers in high camps with FRS radios. They’ll also call down to basecamp at 14,000 feet, where Steve and Sibu began the day (we later learn that they’d set out early to carry a load of food and gear to stash at 17,200). His first priority is to collect information: Has anyone on the route seen, passed, or talked to Steve and Sibu? When? Where were they? What was their condition? Based on that, Mike tells me, he determine who to send out, but it will probably be the descending rangers if the information indicates that Steve is probably at the GPS location sent by the SPOT. He tells me to sit tight; it might take a couple hours. He’ll call me when he knows something.

6:29 pm MST: Still no Jen. Torrey is a small, almost-off-the-grid gateway burg, but this is ridiculous.

7:13 pm MST: I call home and tell Heather why I won’t be home for dinner. She freaks a little. We both get choked up talking about Steve, who I’ve known for 13 years and shared many a campsite with. Not knowing anything — except for “Evac please” — is terrifying. As much as you try to control it, your mind goes to worst-case scenarios.

7:15 pm MST: I start looking for numbers of people who might have Jen’s cell phone number. Why didn’t I think of that before?

7:18 pm MST: Anna Keeling picks up on the second ring. She and her husband, Scott Simper, know Steve from working together on the Anyplace Wild TV show back in the 90s. Scott is Steve’s rock-climbing partner, and Anna was with him on McKinley a few years ago. They live in Salt Lake City, but have a place in Torrey and know Jen and all of her neighbors. Anna offers to call a neighbor’s cell phone and ask her to track down Jen. I give Anna all the information, and tell her to go easy, since Jen probably doesn’t know anything. She promises to call me back, or have Jen call me.

7:53 pm MST: Still no word from Denali. Waiting is tough. I try to edit a story for Backpacker’s September issue. It doesn’t go so well. My mind drifts to the mountain. Maybe logic can help. I get out a piece of paper and start writing down the chronology. I try to estimate how things will play out at high camp. I imagine the descending rangers receiving a call from Mike around 6:30. Maybe they have another two hours to get to camp. Once there, they’ll need at least 30 minutes to re-sort gear, fuel up, and make a plan. Maybe they’ll recruit a few other climbers who aren’t taxed from a summit bid. That’ll take time, too. Assuming that all goes smoothly — and assuming my assumptions are correct — there might not be boots on the ground searching for Steve until 9 pm. That’s a long time, but it’s oddly relaxing: It lets me tell myself there’s no need to worry that Mike hasn’t called back.

8:25 pm MST: The phone rings. I don’t recognize the called ID. It’s Jen on her neighbor’s cell phone. She’s talked to Anna. She’s been crying. I repeat everything I know, tell her how good it is that we have Mike Gauthier working this, and generally try to be upbeat. Which is the god’s honest truth — I am optimistic — but it’s still difficult when you know how much she stands to lose. Steve and Jen love each other so much; they even have cute nicknames for each other: Bob and Betty.

8:33 pm MST: Jen is really brave. Now she’s reassuring me. We chat about the SPOT device, agreeing that in this moment, we have a love/hate relationship with it. Love because it could be a lifesaver: Hell, it’s obviously working — we got a rescue underway in roughly an hour from when Steve pushed the button. Hate, because we know he’s in trouble, just not how much. “Sometimes I feel like ignorance is bliss,” says Jen.

8:41 pm MST: I give Jen the number at the Talkeetna climbing ranger station. We agree to stay by the phone and alert each other if we hear anything. It could be hours yet, I remind her.

9:32 pm MST: “Hi Jon, this is Chris from Denali. I’m one of the climbing rangers. Mike asked me to call you. Steve is okay. There was some kind of malfunction with the device. He didn’t mean to send the distress call and is embarrassed by all the fuss. We located him on his way down to 14,000. He wasn’t even aware the signal went out. He’ll try calling you from a sat phone when he gets down there.”

9:33 pm MST: Holy crap again. What a relief. I don’t know what to make of the SPOT malfunction — watch this blog for a full dissection when Steve returns — but I’m too happy about the news to care much right now.

9:35 pm MST: Jen has heard, too. “I can start drinking now,” she says.

6:00 am MST (today): An email from Jen. Steve called from basecamp last night. He’s okay, a bit embarrassed, and thankful for the quick response. And he’s turning off the SPOT.

As they say, all’s well that ends well.

— Jonathan Dorn 

[The day after update: After spending several hours this afternoon trying to figure out how Steve’s SPOT might have generated help messages without his knowledge, I put in a call to Derek Moore, the product manager over there. In Backpacker’s testing, we hadn’t seen any malfunctions with the SPOT, so the ranger’s message was nagging at me. I wondered if there was a possibility that Steve accidentally engaged the help function. Derek explained that the help button could, in fact, be inadvertently engaged if something small and sharp, like a thumbnail or pencil, were pressed into the opening for two to three seconds. He also explained that after an hour of sending help signals, the SPOT automatically goes into idle mode.

According to SPOT’s records (they can view a complete history of the unit’s activities), this is what happened with Steve’s unit. After an hour, the records show, Steve’s unit came out of idle – something that only happens when the ON button is pushed. So it seems plausible that sometime during his descent, after dropping gear at 17,200, Steve leaned against something small enough to activate the tiny help button, then didn’t notice that the indicator lights had changed until much later, once the unit had gone idle. Then, not realizing he’d sent out a distress call, he turned the SPOT back “on” to continue tracking his progress. That may be the best guess at this point, but it’s only a guess. Until we hear from Steve, we can’t know for sure.]

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