Story by U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Reece Lodder
Publish Date: Sept. 10, 2016
SEATTLE — “I often think about how I can’t climb a mountain without a team; rarely do I think about how we’ll descend the same mountain while dealing with an emergency situation like this.”
As both an experienced climber and U.S. Marine, Capt. Nick Anthony has learned how to effectively “plan for the best and prepare for the worst.” Together with his team, the Seattle-based recruiting management officer was thrust into an emergency response situation while climbing in North Cascades National Park, Washington.
After an early wake up, Sept. 10, 2016, Anthony and teammates Colin Ayers, Melanie Stam and Ben Stilin arrived at the Boston Basin Trailhead at 4:30 a.m. Leaden clouds shielded all but a few stars. Behind them soared dark, lithic silhouettes of mountains touched lightly by snow.
The climbers checked their gear and affixed headlamps, shaking off the frigid morning air biting into their warming layers. Stepping onto the trail, they maneuvered through a soaring old growth forest for three hours. The first rays of morning sunlight greeted them as they exited the tree line, peaking over the mountaintops as they approached a glacier.
While Anthony and his team roped together in preparation for their ascent, 77-year-old Norman Petty and his wife Barbara, avid hikers visiting from Dunwoody, Georgia, began a 7.4-mile round trip hike in nearby Cascade Pass. The two groups would soon cross paths.
Ascending the glacier, Anthony and his team navigated a slew of crevasses while climbing to more than 7,900 feet in elevation. As they looked toward their teammates, they could barely see beyond the 30-meter length of their rope, said Ayers, a 21-year-old University of Washington chemical engineering student from Spokane, Washington.
“The visibility was as bad as I’ve ever climbed in,” Ayers said. “We were able to pick out the people on our rope team, but not much other than that. Looking up, there was no distinction between the slope of the glacier and where it met cloud cover.”
Forceful gusts of wind shifted the cloud coverage up the glacier, negating the team’s ability to distinguish between the clouds and snow. They cautiously moved forward, eventually coming within 600 vertical feet of the summit. Despite being near it, they decided to turn back, agreeing in the wisdom of not continuing in whiteout conditions.
“I’ve turned around at other climbs, but never that close,” Ayers said. “The summit seemed like it was right in front of us, but with the sketchy traverses, sheet of ice and snow softening up, we decided against it. We felt like it had been a bit of a wasted day.”
Given the conditions, the team decided to complete their climb using an alternate route that was better maintained. For four hours, they crossed a talus field littered with small boulders, descending more than 1,000 feet in elevation and subsequently ascending another 600 feet to reach the Sahale Arm, a prominent ridgeline that protrudes from Sahale Mountain. Nearly 12 hours into their climb, the weary climbers stopped for a quick break and to capture photos.
“We were shwacked,” said Anthony, a 32-year-old native of Norman, Oklahoma. “All we were thinking about at that point was having cheeseburgers at the end of the climb.”
As Anthony’s group neared Cascade Pass an hour later, Catherine Mitchell, a content project manager for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, waved them down. She was hiking through the pass when she came upon Norman and Barbara Petty. The couple was well into their 7.4-mile trek through the pass when Norman Petty’s breathing became labored and his legs began to give out.
“Before they came to help us, I was praying and thinking, “How will I get Norman down off this mountain?”” Barbara Petty said. “Once Catherine said they weren’t going to leave us, I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
With Stam ahead of the group and Stilin having departed to find a park ranger, Anthony and Ayers tended to Norman Petty, who they learned served as a U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer in the 1960s. Anthony checked his vital signs and began establishing a brief medical history.
Piecing the info together with the couple’s answers, Anthony learned Norman Petty had Parkinson’s disease and hadn’t taken his daily medication for it – nor did he have it with him. When he tried to stand up, he lost motor control and couldn’t maintain his balance.
“We felt a sense of duty to care for him,” Anthony said. “Ethically, we couldn’t leave someone who needed medical attention, especially knowing we had the ability to help.”
As Norman Petty rested, Anthony, Ayers, and Mitchell provided him with food and water while discussing what to do next. Daylight was closing in and the temperature would soon begin dropping. There was no time to waste.
“I couldn't have been more relieved and impressed with how Nick [Anthony] quickly jumped to action, assessing Norman’s medical state, itemizing our gear, and brainstorming ideas on how to successfully navigate the trail during day and night, which soon approached,” Mitchell said.
Drawing from his Marine Corps and wilderness survival training, Anthony worked with Ayers to create a support system using trekking poles, jackets, and gloves. The duo braced the poles on their shoulders, enabling Norman Petty to drape his arms over the poles, lessen the pressure on his legs and shuffle along.
As they laboriously navigated approximately three miles of Cascade Pass’s switchbacks for the next three hours, the trio of rescuers each played their part in returning the couple to safety. Mitchell lit up the trail and encouraged Barbara Petty. Ayers helped Anthony support Norman Petty, conversing with him the entire length of the trail.
“This helped take Norman’s mind off the situation at hand, and let him know he was truly cared for and would make it back safely to the trailhead,” Mitchell said.
The group plodded along but Norman Petty’s legs continued to give out. Every 50 meters, he needed to stop to catch his breath. Eventually, the breaks became longer and the distance between them shorter.
“Knowing you have a mission to complete and having gone through training that makes you mentally tough and able to adapt – even when you’re cold, hungry and tired – you buckle down and get it done,” Anthony said.
The time crept past 9 p.m. as they pressed forward. Anthony and Ayers agreed they needed to find a better way to carry Norman Petty. The trail of the switchbacks was so narrow that it prevented them from being able to stand side by side to do so. Their best option was to devise an improvised litter on which he could lay, placing the brunt of his weight on the two litter bearers
“Their ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance were incredible,” Norman Petty said of Anthony and Ayers. “I was worried I might fall off the cliff, but they took hold of the available materials and prevented that.”
The duo was nearly done building a litter when a new, large group of climbers descending the pass approached them on the trail. After reinforcing the litter with a hammock carried by one of these climbers, Jay Hergert, Anthony, Ayers and six others lifted him up and continued their descent.
They soon encountered Ranger Travis Baldwin, who evaluated Norman Petty and asked if the group needed relief. Ayers said he and Anthony were determined to finish what they started, and the group set off to complete the last quarter mile to the trailhead.
“We made the call we knew we had to make, regardless of how we felt physically, mentally or emotionally,” Anthony said. “We had to keep pushing to get him safely off the mountain.”
Finally, at 10 p.m., they arrived at the trailhead and were greeted by Ranger Scott Schissel and medical personnel. Anthony, Ayers, Mitchell, Stam and Stilin remained with the couple while Norman Petty was evaluated and treated. Fortunately, he was released to his wife to be transported home.
Had Anthony and his team continued their descent as initially planned, they would’ve arrived at the trailhead around 6 p.m. Despite the extra four hours, each of the teammates expressed thankfulness for the opportunity to help the couple in a time of need, which Norman gratefully received.
“This was a life-changing event,” Norman Petty said. “We were so fortunate to encounter Washingtonians who, without any hesitation, decided to help us get down the mountain. They were giving, caring people and weren’t looking for accolades. Their reward was in successfully working together to bring all of us back safely.”
Though the rescuers didn’t arrive at the nearest open restaurant until nearly 1:30 a.m. the next morning, the wait created by unexpected circumstances was well worth it, Anthony said with a smirk.
“Denny’s has never tasted so damn good!”