Reliving the High Life – Returning to the Site of a Near Tragedy

During the seventh night of an eight-day ascent up Denali’s demanding Cassin Ridge, Mike Helms and I anchored our tent to a precarious perch at 18,000 feet. That night, we survived hurricane-force winds and in the morning, woke to temperatures that had plummeted to -35 degrees.


We waited for the sun before starting for the summit, but the sun offered little warmth, and in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere we struggled to move one foot higher than the other.

When we reached 19,500 feet, we saw a small tent and a single climber waving frantically. We arrived to find a man named Jack Roberts; his toes were frostbitten, and his partner, Simon McCartney, lay in the tent semiconscious with high-altitude cerebral edema. We considered our options and hatched a plan: Mike and Jack would continue over the summit and return with rescuers, and I would wait with Simon. They left, but the rescue never materialized.

After two days, Simon and I roped up and attempted to go over the top, but he was unable to make even a few steps. We had no choice but to attempt a foodless, eight-day descent of the 8,000-foot ridge that Mike and I had just climbed. We remained tethered most of the way down.

Alaska published the full saga in 1981, but in short, Simon recovered and quit climbing cold-turkey—like an addict leaving a habit. For 35 years, Mike silently carried guilt for the failed rescue. I returned to climbing but never again at such a technical level in the high peaks. Jack lived 30 more years, but died from a fall while ice climbing in Colorado.

When Simon heard of Jack’s death, he underwent a catharsis about the sport that he had loved and abandoned. Then he called me.

I’d not heard his voice since we exchanged goodbyes in a hospital room years ago, but it reached across the Pacific from his home in Hong Kong to mine in Bellingham, Washing- ton. We shared a tearful conversation, then he explained his plan to write a book that recounted the intense years he spent climbing with Jack. Two years later, in 2014, he visited our home before traveling to Boulder, Colorado, to meet Jack’s widow, Pam.

In fall 2015, my wife, Karen, and I planned a road trip to Wonder Lake. The trip included a scheduled, scenic flight over Denali. A week before heading north, I forwarded the flight confirmation to Simon with the invite, “Pop over if you have the chance.”

He replied with his flight arrangements from Hong Kong. Twenty-four hours later, he forwarded Pam’s flight details from Boulder.

In the sleepy town of Talkeetna, Karen and I located Simon and Pam at the Roadhouse where we had breakfast before moving over to Talkeetna Air Taxi. There, Simon requested specific angles that would enable him to take photos for his book. Pilot Dave Wiewel said he could accommodate the requests. We and six other passengers piled into a de Havilland Turbine Otter, and Simon took the copilot seat.

Under beautiful skies, we approached the chasm of Ruth Gorge, then made a couple loops over the Matterhorn-like summit of Mt. Huntington, which Simon and Jack climbed via the 5,000-foot icy north face—a climb that has never been replicated. Then we flew by Denali where Cassin Ridge juts out to the right of Simon and Jack’s route on the south face.

We returned to Ruth Gorge, where we landed at the base of Mt. Huntington’s north face and stepped out onto Ruth Glacier. Soon, Simon pointed to the fluted ice face where he and Jack spent more than a week forging a tenuous path up and through the cliffs. The other tourists began quizzing him in disbelief and wondering how anyone could ascend such a mountain.

Pam moved ahead to silently honor her husband, who remembered the Huntington climb as his greatest achievement. For Simon and me, the minutes moved too quickly as we remembered the past and tried to process its influence on the present. When the time came to depart, we climbed aboard, reluctant to leave.

After a hearty lunch and lots of wine and beer, we headed back to Talkeetna Air Taxi for an evening flight—a more private affair in a Cessna that is usually designated for transporting climbers and would allow us to experience the mountain from the perspective we had in 1980.

Pilot Paul Roderick gave the four of us a flight of lifetime. We spiraled around the ridges and faces we had climbed years ago. Mostly silent, we realized that the bravado of our youth had long since passed. We looked on the mountains as middle-age men fortunate to be alive.

As we parted ways, Pam gave each of us one of Jack’s Hawaiian print shirts for which he was renowned. At his memorial service in Boulder, 600 people attended— and nearly everyone wore such a shirt.

In 1980, two pairs of young men climbed the steepest face of Denali. With the summit in sight, a life-and-death drama unfolded. The decisions we made at 19,500 feet changed each of us forever—though the depth of those changes did not fully surface until recently.

A nylon climbing rope loses its strength in a season or two, but the connection forged between two climbers on Denali remains unbreakable.