A climbing accident and cold temperatures killed seven people at Washington’s Mount Rainier in the past month.
In the same time frame another of the mountain’s wicked signatures became potentially life-threatening for Lawrence resident Courtney Sappington: altitude.
Thanks to a movie-worthy helicopter rescue, Sappington is home safe after experiencing a rare altitude seizure amid treacherous conditions high on the mountain.
Sappington, 27, and her husband, Daryl Sappington, started their ascent on Memorial Day with four guides and six other climbers. The couple had done a lot of mountain hiking while previously living in Arizona, but this was their first glacier climb.
“That’s why we chose it,” Courtney Sappington said. “It was a little bit different and more challenging.”
They picked the more heavily traveled and least technical side of the mountain, where the success rate for reaching the summit is about 50 percent, Sappington said.
On day three — the day they were scheduled to summit — they started hiking at 3 a.m. in single-digit temperatures, Sappington said. She said guides turned the group around 1,000 feet short of the 14,000-plus-foot summit because precipitation had made the snow unstable, but the excursion continued without incident.
A little farther down the mountain, with about six hours of steep and snowy descent to go, that changed.
The group was stopped for a break when Sappington started convulsing — so violently her shoulder dislocated and a bone in her arm broke — and passed out.
Guides, in radio contact with base camp, and a physician in the group recognized what was happening, bundled Sappington up and put an oxygen tube in her nose before she came to five minutes later.
The question became, how would she get back down?
Besides her arm Sappington said she felt fine physically. But guides ultimately decided against roping her in and continuing their descent as planned.
“It was not only a risk for me if I were to have a seizure again, but I would also be tied in to my husband and the guide,” Sappington said. “You start putting other people’s lives in danger if you’re tied into someone who’s not in the right state of mind.”
Instead, an Army helicopter would pluck Sappington and one guide off the side of the mountain and fly them to the hospital.
The rest of the group, including Sappington’s husband, had to leave the pair behind. The helicopter would have no space to land, and the force created by its blades was so strong it could blow a climber over the precipice below, Sappington said.
Daryl Sappington said he heard the helicopter as he and the others picked their way down the mountain but could no longer see his wife.
“Your mind starts thinking, ‘What if it crashes?’” he said. “It was probably good that I had to focus on what I was doing.”
Courtney Sappington and the guide had anchored themselves to the mountain with a metal spike and rope. With the helicopter hovering overhead — its blades flinging ice and rocks and whipping backpack straps in their faces — two men were lowered down on a line to tie her into a harness and lift her in.
“That was a really scary experience,” Sappington said. “I trusted them fully, but you just never know.”
The Sappingtons reunited that night at the hospital.
Sometime in the following days, six climbers died on another side of Mount Rainier, their fall possibly caused by avalanche or falling ice. A few weeks later an experienced hiker died of hypothermia while trekking near the peak.
Doctors have told Sappington they believe her seizure was a freak occurrence that they don’t think will happen again. But the Sappingtons said they’ll probably tackle lower-altitude climbs before working back up to a Rainier-level challenge.
Sappington doesn’t want to give up on reaching the top of mountains.
“It’s a great goal to work toward,” she said. “It gives me something to train for — and very much a sense of accomplishment.”