British climbers who survived an ordeal of falls, isolation, fierce storms and bitter cold on Mount McKinley thanked their rescuers Tuesday and vowed to return to North America's tallest peak.
Seven of the climbers, members of a nine-man military party, were bandaged, frostbitten or windburned when they faced reporters at Anchorage's Alaska Regional Hospital. Three were in wheelchairs."There are some inherent risks in climbing, as all of you are perfectly aware," expedition leader Capt. Justin Featherstone said.
"I'd like to think that we as an expedition did everything to minimize those risks and didn't put other people's lives in danger," said Featherstone, 28, whose ankle was in a cast after being shattered in a 2,000-foot fall late Friday.
The climbers are members of the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, headquartered in Canterbury, Kent.
They were plucked off the mountain on Monday in a rescue that combined efforts of National Park Service mountaineering rangers, the U.S. Army and Alaska National Guard and a cadre of volunteers.
The "Summit to Sea" expedition, which planned to travel to North America's tallest peak, then raft and kayak down three rivers to the sea at Cook Inlet, never reached McKinley's 20,320-foot summit.
Its troubles began Thursday night, when one climber made a misstep while ascending a steep gully known as the "Orient Express" for the many Asians who have perished there.
That triggered a cascading 300-foot fall in which one of the party, Martin Spooner, injured an ankle, making it impossible for him to continue. Two others - Steve Brown and Phil Whitfield - received head injuries.
Spooner and Carl Bougard remained at the 19,000-foot level of the icy slope for three days and four nights.
Clouds hid them from searchers, and they waited out the bad weather with no food, shelter or radio and only minimal fuel. Their comrades, meanwhile, had made it to the relative safety of the ranger camp at the mountain's 14,200-foot level.
Late Sunday night, the pilot of the park's high-altitude helicopter spotted the pair and dropped gear and food, including some much-appreciated hot chocolate.
"We were dying for a drink at that point," Bougard said.
The helicopter refueled and returned to the site, where Spooner and Bougard clipped into a 100-foot rope and were carried to safety at the ranger camp.