HC Deb 25 June 1998 vol 314 cc567-8W
Mr. Hoyle

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the rescue of the two British Army climbers from Mount McKinley in Alaska. [47559]

Mr. Spellar

On Thursday 18 June a 10 man team of soldiers from the 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, had split into two groups in an attempt to climb Mt. McKinley in Alaska. A team of six were attempting the summit, whilst three soldiers remained in a mountain hut at 14,000ft to provide support. The tenth solider had already left the mountain suffering from altitude sickness.

At 19,300ft as they attempted to cross a snow buttress, the leading group of three soldiers, who were roped together, fell 300ft. Two of them sustained injuries which prevented them from taking any further part in the expedition. Whilst the two injured soldiers remained at 19,000 ft with two fit members of the team, the other two descended to a rescue hut to raise the alarm. During the descent they encountered two American civilian climbers who had both fallen and had sustained serious injury. One of the soldiers remained with the Americans whilst the other continued down the mountain to alert the rescue services.

The High Altitude Rescue Team from the US Army Base at Fort Wainwright were alerted by the National Park Rangers at 2 o'clock on the morning of Friday 19 June. However, due to heavy cloud formations, strong winds and temperatures of 30 degrees below zero, a helicopter rescue was not possible. Later that day one of the injured soldiers who had been unconscious but had now recovered, needed to be evacuated to a lower altitude. He was accompanied by a fit member of the team. However, during the descent, the climbers became disoriented and both fell a considerable distance down a steep slope. During the fall one of the soldiers suffered a broken ankle. Both were rescued and taken to the hut at 14,000 ft, still unable to be lifted out by helicopter due to poor conditions.

The two soldiers remaining at 19,000 ft were now isolated by bad weather which prevented their rescue until Monday 21 June. During this period they endured four difficult nights at high altitude, in freezing conditions, with very little food. On 21 June a special high altitude Lama helicopter lifted both soldiers from the mountain to a base camp where they were transferred to another helicopter and air lifted to hospital in Anchorage. In total, four soldiers were hospitalised, one has sustained a broken ankle, two have frostbite, and one, who has since been released, had minor injuries.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the National Park Rangers and the US Emergency Services for performing such a gallant act of rescue. In addition, the many mountaineers who assisted on the mountain in the recovery of our soldiers are to be thanked. We should also congratulate our soldiers, who finding themselves in extremely difficult circumstances, relied upon their high quality training to survive this hostile and life threatening situation.

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