Living With Attitude

The American Alpine Journal – Volume 28, 1986


Denali on One Leg

by: Matthew Kerns

TALKEETNA’S MAIN STREET was awash with puddles of winter run-off when the Tripod Expedition arrived at the end of April. Our first stop was Doug Geeting’s office for a confirmation of our flight to Kahiltna Base. When we entered, Doug was bemused by the appearance of our team.

Before him stood an unlikely cast of characters comprised of soft-spoken Bill Sumner, two attractive young women, Sarah Doherty and her good friend Carol Martin, and me. The standing joke between us was that the expedition was really made up of an old man, a one-legged woman, a black woman and a token climber. Sarah, beaming with excitement, proclaimed, “We’re going to the summit of Denali and we’re ready for the take-off!”

Sarah may have seemed an unlikely candidate to reach Mount McKinley’s summit, but she is a person of great tenacity and strong will. The same strong will helped her overcome her tragic misfortune as a young girl of thirteen after she was hit by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle down a neighborhood street and her right leg had to be amputated from the hip down.

I don’t believe she was attempting Denali to be the first amputee to reach the summit. She seemed to have nothing to prove. I believe she was there like other climbers, to test herself against the mountain’s fierce weather and altitude. It seemed a fitting challenge for one so strong of mind.

Sarah’s companion, Carol, worked in the radio-news business and was recording the event for the media. However, the friendship and comradery that existed between the two throughout the adventure remained more important than any headline.

We awoke early the next morning, all a little foggy, the weather being no exception. Doug reassured us that the local fog would lift and our cast would be assembled at Kahiltna Base before noon. True to his word, a few hours later, we flew over “One-Shot Pass” and Denali came into full view. Bill pointed the way we would travel up the main fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to Windy Corner and on to the summit.

Abruptly, the scope of our project came full circle in a rather sobering way. I realized, then, that we might easily become another unsuccessful statistic on the National Park Record book. I had complete faith in our leader, Bill Sumner. A veteran mountaineer, he had already been to Denali several times in the past and felt quite at home there. However, the only experience that Carol and Sarah had was an ascent of Mount Rainier. I resolved my worries by deciding that with a bit of patience on my part and overall teamwork, we would make it to the summit.

On May 1 we set out on snowshoes, each carrying our personal gear and dragging loads behind us on sleds. The large polypropylene baskets attached to Sarah’s crutches supported her weight and distributed her load well, even in the fresh snow. Sarah’s strong shoulders and her powerful leg helped her without difficulty to reach 11,000 feet on May 4.

We broke camp at 11,000 feet on May 7, leaving a cache of extra food and snowshoes. While climbing to the bergschrund at 12,800 feet below Windy Corner, the weather began to deteriorate. Wind gusts were soon blasting us at 90 miles per hour. Bill had Sarah literally tethered like a kite on his rope, while Carol had to crawl on her hands and knees on my rope. Yet, we all remained surprisingly calm during this desperate situation. Unexpectedly, Brant Hannah and Rob Roach of Denali’s medical research facility appeared. They were able to give us a hand reaching the bergschrund.

On May 10, under calm, clearing skies, we moved on to 14,000 feet and the medical research facility. The doctors there advised Carol that the frostbite she had sustained on her hands during our epic climb to 12,800 feet was severe enough to warrant the cancelation of her summit plans.

On May 15, after taking a few rest days and establishing a cache at 16,000 feet, Sarah, Bill and I set off on our summit bid. A disappointed Carol waved goodbye. This was also very disheartening for Sarah. Both women had given each other much strength and encouragement and their friendship had instilled good spirit and tremendous comradery.

We spent an unexpectedly calm night at 16,000 feet, having climbed the long couloir from 14,000 feet without difficulty. The next day was filled with spectacular views as we traversed the ridge to get to 17,000 feet. The terrain along the ridge proved the most technically challenging part of the climb for Sarah. The conditions there were varied. Sections of the route were steep, icy and very exposed. I watched with admiration as Sarah adjusted her three-point system many times to match the terrain. Her technique included the use of two crutches that had been modified with ice-axe picks and spiked bottoms. This system seemed precariously unstable at times. The points of her crutches rarely made good contact into the icy slopes. Yet she continued without hesitation. Moral support was thrown in by our boot-axe belays and she navigated the obstacles with confidence.

On May 17 a storm moved in with howling winds and drifting snow. Brian Okonek, a Denali guide, generously spared us some extra food that would allow us to remain at 17,000 feet for several days.

The next three days were the coldest I have spent, anywhere. Yet, after three days of being tent-bound, buried by snow and nearly blown off the mountain, Sarah’s morale was still high. Perhaps, it was because she knew that we needed only one more good day to reach the summit.

Finally, on May 19 the weather cleared and we set out for the top. We negotiated the wind-swept route to Denali Pass in three hours. Above the pass, our pace was slow but constant due to the increasing wind.

By early evening we reached the final summit ridge. As we traversed, building storm clouds raced across the ridge, obscuring us from each other. Then, at eight P.M., we reached the summit. We were all too numb with cold to stay long as we knew the descent would be just as long and toilsome for Sarah.

So we started back down. Upon reaching Denali Pass, we were overtaken by a violent storm. The 100-mile-per-hour blasts made simultaneous roped movement nearly impossible. Bill and I arrested several of Sarah’s falls before we finally made it back to our 17,000-foot camp. We found the tent barely standing. The fly had blown away, the poles were bent and the snow wall had been eroded by the wind. To add to our problems, Sarah had frostbitten her thumbs while descending.

After a painful evening, we broke camp and headed quickly for the luxury of the camp at 14,000 feet. The pain and anxiety showing on Sarah’s face gave way to a girlish smile as I jokingly recited the words of a favourite kinks tune, “Paranoia may destroy ya.” I watched from below as Sarah made her way down. I was worried about how she would negotiate the steep terrain. I knew her ability as a downhill skier would be helpful, but she still had to manage with badly frostbitten thumbs. As she moved down the slope with skill, my concerns abated.

It was an emotional reunion at 14,000 feet for Carol and Sarah. Sarah received much applause from the small civilization of climbers encamped there.

The next day all four of us made our way toward Kahiltna Base. Dr. Gil Roberts of the medical research team joined our troupe for the descent, providing us with good company and medical advice for Sarah’s frostbite. Our spirits were given a lift when Doug Geeting gave us a “fly-by” just as we were starting up the last leg, Heartbreak Hill, to reach Kahiltna Base.

I feel very fortunate to have gotten to know Sarah and to have shared in her experiences and achievements on Denali. She proved that with perseverance and courage, handicapped individuals can and do surmount surprising obstacles. Hopefully her achievement will also inspire all who hear of it to seek their dreams; and to succeed!