Elton Thayer 1954-05-15

Survivor to recall deadly '54 Denali climb and rescue

By MIKE DUNHAM, mdunham@adn.com, Published: June 25th, 2011

For a week in the spring of 1954, George Argus lay helplessly in a tent at the 11,000-foot level of Mount McKinley. He was too injured to move after an accident that killed the leader of his climbing team, stuck in a sleeping bag as snow slowly piled up around him, and stretching a meager stock of supplies left by two other survivors who left him behind when they went to get help.

Argus had already been to the top of the 20,320-foot mountain and had been on his way back down when trouble struck. He knew that no one else would try that route up North America's tallest peak that season. If his companions perished on their descent or snow buried his shelter or rescue did not arrive in time, he was a goner.

He was -- in the words of mountaineering writer Douglas MacDonald -- "the most isolated human being in North America."

Now in his 80s and researcher emeritus at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Argus is back in Alaska this week. On Monday, he will give a free talk about the climb and its aftermath at the Anchorage Museum.

The story, a staple of Denali lore, has been recounted many times -- by MacDonald, in Climbing magazine, among others. It marked the first successful ascent of McKinley from the south, the first traverse of the mountain and the first time a helicopter was used to extract an injured climber.

It's Argus' tale to tell. But here's the short version.


The idea of climbing McKinley from the south, then descending on the north side came from Elton Thayer, a ranger at Mount McKinley National Park. Thayer recruited three friends including Argus, Morton Wood -- the husband of pilot Ginny Wood and cofounder of Camp Denali -- and Leslie Viereck, a soldier, like Argus, who was assigned to the Army's Arctic Indoctrination School at Big Delta.

With snowshoes, wool clothes and handmade tents, they left the train stop at Curry, traveling on foot, on April 17, 1954. The adventurers bushwhacked overland 40 miles to reach what is now the starting point for many climbers, the Don Sheldon Amphitheater.

Ginny Wood flew over and dropped supplies.

Pioneering the ascent via the South Buttress, they found conditions more difficult than they'd envisioned.

"We had seriously underestimated not only heights but also the steepness of the route," Wood wrote in the American Alpine Journal shortly after the climb. The team laboriously chipped steps into the long ice face until they crested the shoulder with their goal in sight.

On May 15, they easily made the summit. Compared to what they'd been through, it "seemed like a complete anti-climax," Wood recalled.


The climbers began their descent in high spirits.

Wood had previously climbed on the northern route and, though only 10 parties were said to have reached the top of the mountain since its first "conquest" in 1913, the north side was better known than the south.

The walk to Denali Pass, around the 18,500-foot level, then down Harper Glacier went smoothly. But Karsten's Ridge, the knife-edge feature starting at about 13,000 feet, presented a dangerous slope and iffy footing. They moved cautiously, roped together, with one man at a time shifting his position while the others belayed to hold him if he slipped.

It didn't work. Thayer began to slide.

His momentum pulled Viereck loose too. The other two climbers soon followed. For the next few seconds they slid, rolled and cartwheeled an estimated 1,000 feet. Just before flying over a cliff, Viereck was jammed in a crevasse. The force of the jerk broke his ribs but the rope held.

Wood, unhurt, freed himself and spotted Viereck "dazed but on his feet, thank God," and Argus, sitting in the snow, one leg doubled underneath him.

Thayer was swinging from the rope over the edge of an ice outcropping, lifeless. Wood surmised the stop broke his back and killed him instantly.

Gear was strewn and lost but Wood and Viereck located one tent and, as the sun went behind the North Peak and temperatures dropped, managed to get Argus into shelter. After their immediate survival was assured, they buried Thayer.

The tent sat in a precarious spot on a steep avalanche chute. Pelted by falling ice, they waited five days. But Argus was still unable to stand or even bend his knees. Wood and Viereck fashioned a makeshift ahkio -- or sled -- using the tent and air mattresses. They lashed Argus in and inched him down another 1,000 feet over a precipitous wall to reach the relative safety of the head of the Muldrow Glacier at 11,000 feet.

"I had never before appreciated level surfaces quite as much as I did that night when we could once again camp on flat ice," Wood wrote.

They now faced a somber choice. Going out for help would require two men working with ropes to safely navigate the glacier. That meant the disabled man would be on his own. But waiting together with no way to communicate their situation to possible rescuers could well mean the death of all of them.

Wood and Viereck left most of their salvaged supplies with Argus -- enough food for 10 days or, perhaps, two weeks -- and began the long trek to Wonder Lake.


With little sleep or food, the two walked almost constantly for the next two days, down Muldrow Glacier, over McGonagall Pass, along Cache Creek to the McKinley Bar. Modern climbing guides give the distance as about 27 miles from where they'd left Argus. There they found a cabin that Thayer had stocked with emergency supplies before the climb. They rested briefly and pushed on.

They had been told that the dirt road from Kantishna to the railroad would be open by May 1. But when they reached the road they saw no tracks in the old snow. They would have to march another 85 miles, four more days on very sore feet.

Disheartened, they caught their breath at the cabin of an old-timer, Johnny Busia (sometimes given as Buchet), the only person living in the area. "Our feet were very sore," said Wood.

Then they heard a voice calling from across the river. Park officials with a Dodge Power Wagon had dug through drifts to make the first trip of the season.

A rescue mission was quickly organized, headed by John McCall, a glaciologist and one of the handful of people who had previously climbed McKinley. Soldiers -- most of whom knew Pvt. Argus personally -- flew in from the base at Big Delta, the Army's main cold-weather training facility.

A Sikorsky H-5 helicopter was also dispatched. It could only fly to 10,000 feet, short of where Argus had been left, and a chopper rescue off the mountain had never been tried before. Searchers would have to find the injured climber and get him to where the helicopter could land safely.

Dropped off by the chopper in bad weather, McCall and Fred Milan, an expert in winter survival with the U.S. Air Force Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory near Fairbanks, began moving up the glacier on skis.

Navigating a maze of crevasses in falling snow was painfully slow. "Every foot of travel had to be probed," McCall wrote in Saga magazine. "It was spooky business."

But the weather cleared the higher they climbed and, on May 30, they spotted a "little black triangle."

As he approached the tent, McCall became nervous about what he'd find -- a madman? A corpse?

Instead, "George had his bearded, matted face sticking out, looking up at us with kind of a funny grin."

Alert and cogent, Argus offered to heat up some tea for the visitors.

"There's a bunch of MPs behind us," McCall told him. "They're after you because you're AWOL."

Argus laughed. McCall knew he'd be fine.


It took two more days for the Army team to bring Argus down Muldrow Glacier to McGonagall Pass, at about 6,000 feet. There he was transferred to the helicopter and taken first to Ladd Air Force Base near Fairbanks, then to the military hospital in Anchorage.

He recovered and went on to a career in plant science (his specialty is willows), a pursuit noted for the same analytical, methodical approach to problems that Argus employed to stay alive.

Unable to leave the shelter, he had used a refashioned gas can as a bedpan. He occupied his time by reading a book of Mark Twain stories and mapping every geographical feature he could spot from the tent flap.

According to a Time magazine report, "He kept regular mealtimes, lifting himself on one elbow to cook tiny portions of oatmeal and dried eggs." He set out his rations in order and still had several days' worth left when McCall showed up.

His most difficult hours came when snow melted through the tent and soaked his boots. Realizing that frostbite was sure to follow, he endured the agony of bending his knees to remove the boots and replace them with mukluks. The maneuver took a whole day.

Agrus can tell the rest himself on Monday.

As for the others: Viereck became a botanist and one of the strongest critics of Project Chariot, the plan to make a harbor in Point Hope using nuclear bombs. He died in Fairbanks in 2008.

Wood divorced Ginny in 1960 and moved to Seattle and taught high school. He still lives there. He recalled Thayer as one for whom climbing "was a deep spiritual experience."

Thayer expressed that attitude when he invited his friends to join him on a trek that could well end in failure. "If reaching the top is all I'm going for, then (I think) I ought to stay home," he wrote.

Thayer Cirque at the head of Traleika Glacier bears his name. His body remains in the snow where his friends buried him. His widow, Bernice, wished that no lives be risked to recover it.

"He loved mountains," she said, "and that's where he'd want to stay."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.