In the spring of 1980, climbers Mike Helms and Bob Kandiko came upon two other climbers in peril near the summit of Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali. Over the next several days, and in very difficult conditions, Helms and Kandiko helped the other two men down the mountain, saving at least one life and perhaps two.
For most of the next 35 years, this story of selfless valor remained largely untold, but there is no statute of limitations for acts of mountaineering heroism.
In January, the American Alpine Club honored Helms, who lives in Snohomish, and Kandiko, a Bellingham resident, with its prestigious David Sowles Memorial Award. It’s given to “mountaineers who have distinguished themselves by going to the assistance of fellow climbers imperiled in the mountains.”
What Helms and Kandiko did on Denali, or Mount McKinley as it was then called, was an “epic rescue” and “one of the great stories of Alaska climbing history,” American Alpine Club executive editor Dougald MacDonald said in a statement.
It is, he added, “high time they get more recognition for their brave efforts.”
In the years since that fateful climb – and they were years the four men had virtually no contact with each other – Helms, 66, continued to think he should have done something different, something more. Though no lives were lost, the memory of what happened on Denali was always, for Helms, tainted with regret.
If he did open up to family or close friends about the climb, it usually took “two or three shots of Scotch,” he said. In the presence of outsiders, and even as recently as a year ago, “I wouldn’t talk about it.”
The Sowles Award reunited Helms, Kandiko and Simon McCartney, another of the climbers. The fourth man, Jack Roberts, was killed in a 2012 Colorado climbing accident.
The awards ceremony was in Washington, D.C. In his acceptance speech, Helms told how he, Kandiko, McCartney and Roberts all left Denali separately and went their own ways, and “a lot that remained unsaid.”
But in the past year, the three surviving climbers have been able to “reconnect, communicate and bring closure to what was a watershed event in our lives,” Helms said.
The four men “spent eight or nine consecutive days really not knowing if we’d survive or not.” And for most of that time, Helms said, “it could’ve gone either way.”
The story begins in late May of 1980, just days after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington. Helms and Kandiko were part of separate climbing teams on other peaks in Denali National Park and Preserve, but a long stretch of bad weather forced the teams back into base camp, and eventually most of their fellow climbers gave up and headed home.
Helms and Kandiko, having become acquainted in camp, decided to stick around and climb Denali together. They chose what is likely the most challenging and therefore least popular route to the summit – the Cassin Ridge on the mountain’s south side – and they would go alpine style, which meant moving in tandem while backpacking all their food, camping equipment and other supplies.
For Helms, who was 30 at the time, it was his fourth ascent on Denali. A North Carolina native, he had remained in the Pacific Northwest after his discharge from the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis south of Tacoma, in large part to pursue his passion for climbing. By the spring of 1980 he had already been to the top of Mount Rainier more than 15 times, and he had climbed numerous other peaks, mostly in the western United States.
On Denali, Helms and his new friend Kandiko went up the Cassin Ridge and were within 1,000 feet of the summit when they encountered McCartney and Roberts, acquaintances from base camp. Roberts had frostbitten feet, but McCartney was in far more critical condition – semi-conscious with cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. His survival depended on getting him off the mountain.
In the tent where McCartney lay, the men conferred. Because they had no radio, it was decided that one person would stay with McCartney while the other two went for help.
Since Helms knew the preferred descent route – the West Buttress, used by the majority of Denali climbers – he would go on. So would Roberts, who wanted to get moving after several days in the tent with McCartney.
That left Kandiko to stay with McCartney. It was a logical plan, but one that gnawed at Helms right from the start. Was it correct, he asked himself, to leave two companions behind – one of them in critical condition – knowing it might be days before rescuers could return?
“Back then in climbing, you didn’t leave people,” he said. “You just didn’t do that. Simon was unconscious, the weather was terrible, and it was cold. I left my sleeping bag, the stove and fuel, and what food we had, but that was it. And as I looked back at the tent as we were leaving, I wondered if I’d ever see (Kandiko and McCartney) alive again.”
Helms and Roberts continued up to within a short distance of the summit and then started down the West Buttress route. But they would have more bad weather, along with difficulty getting reception once they met another climbing party with a radio. In addition, another climber in distress had to be rescued, and Helms and Roberts stepped in to assist.
Back in the tent, and after days of waiting with no food, Kandiko and McCartney finally decided to start down the mountain on their own using the Cassin Ridge route. With virtually nothing to eat – one day they actually dined on toothpaste soup – they eventually, almost miraculously, arrived at around 14,000 feet where they located climbers with a radio and arranged a food drop.
At about the same time, Helms and Roberts reached a place where Roberts could be airlifted to an Anchorage hospital to receive treatment for his frostbitten feet.
Three days later, and after more delays because of poor weather, McCartney was finally taken by helicopter to Anchorage. By this time he had additional medical issues: a broken wrist and concussion suffered in a fall into a crevasse.
On the other side of the mountain, Helms was desperate to learn the fates of Kandiko and McCartney. “Once I found out they were down, I caught the next flight out to (the nearby town of) Talkeetna,” he said. “I was drained physically, mentally and emotionally. I was done.”
What happened on Denali back in 1980 had profound and lasting effects on Helms, Kandiko, McCartney and Roberts, albeit in different ways.
McCartney needed about a year to recover from his injuries, and by then he had decided to give up climbing.
“I had no desire to go back in the mountains and climb things that were easier than my capabilities,” he explained, speaking by telephone from Hong Kong where he operates a successful business. “But I also came to realize that I’d probably be killed if I attempted to do something harder than (Denali).”
Walking away “left a big hole in my life.”
For McCartney, 60, a native of Great Britain, perhaps the biggest takeaway from his Denali experience is the gratitude he feels for Helms and Kandiko: “Those guys put themselves in harm’s way that I might have a chance to survive.”
Roberts not only kept climbing despite losing foot tissue to frostbite on Denali (he later had skin grafts to essentially rebuild his toes), he formed a climbing company and spent most of his working career as a guide. He was married to Pam Roberts for 24 years before his death in a fall during a Jan. 15, 2012, ice climb at Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride, Colorado. He was 59.
“He didn’t talk much about (the Denali climb) because it was complicated (since) there was a rescue involved. He lived with imminent death for a couple of weeks, or however long it lasted, and I don’t think he ever wanted to get that close again.”
After returning from Alaska in 1980, Kandiko continued to have “a very active climbing career.” Even today, he said, speaking by telephone from Bellingham, “I still love getting out in the mountains.”
Now 62, Kandiko ended up teaching science to middle school kids in Ferndale until his retirement a few years ago. He didn’t know that his former climbing partner, Helms, lived just an hour away.
Of the four, Kandiko said, “I probably had the (most) positive walk-away experience. Everybody survived, and everybody probably shouldn’t have survived given the chances in our situation.
But we all walked off the mountain and I thought it was the end of a good story. I walked away feeling lucky.”
Helms continued climbing for a few years after Denali and then he also quit. He had various careers, including a long stint in law enforcement, before retiring about 14 years ago. He’s a competitive clay target shooter.
But in all that time, the memory of Denali and his three companions was never very far away. “I had not seen those guys in 35 years,” Helms said, “but not a week passed that I didn’t think about them.”
The ending to this story, he went on, “has been bittersweet. It’s brought closure.”
Simon McCartney, who escaped death on Denali in 1980 thanks to the rescue efforts of Mike Helms and Bob Kandiko, has written a book about that climb and others he made with his late climbing friend Jack Roberts.
The book, entitled “The Bond,” is “all about the unshakable bond between climbers,” McCartney said. “And it tells the story (of the Denali climb) just the way it happened. It’s a pretty good book, I’m told.”
“The Bond” is due out sometime this summer.
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