Rescue of fallen climber is tribute to friend's determination

ANCHORAGE — With his best friend's life hanging in the balance, 24-year-old Greg Nappi skied through the chill darkness along Eklutna Lake on Thursday night and into the morning Friday as if his own life depended on getting help.

Only hours earlier, Nappi and Joe Butler had been enjoying the start of a spring ice-climb on the west face of The Mitre, a 6,551-foot peak that rises above Eklutna Glacier in Chugach State Park.

For the two men, the climb was to be one of their last together before they headed off to work as guides for the climbing season on Mount McKinley.

Then Butler slipped, a miscue that sent him tumbling and skidding more than 1,000 feet.

How it happened still isn't clear. Details remained sketchy Friday afternoon.

Nappi, when reached by telephone, said he was more interested in sleeping than in talking.

"I managed to save my best friend's life," he said, "(but) I haven't slept in over 30 hours."

What information was available came from Ian Thomas, a Chugach park ranger who was aboard an Alaska State Troopers helicopter that battled 50 mph winds and blowing snow to reach the 28-year-old Butler Friday morning.

Thomas got a call from troopers shortly after Nappi kicked in the door of the vacant Eklutna Campground ranger station at about 5 a.m. to use the telephone. The climber called trooper dispatchers and told them help was needed to save Butler, who had been critically injured in the fall shortly before noon Thursday.

Within hours, a rescue was under way.

By Friday afternoon, Butler was in surgery at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Among other injuries, he reportedly suffered a broken femur -- the big bone in the leg -- and a broken collarbone.

That he survived, Thomas attributed to a climbing helmet, which protected his head in the fall; luck; and the heroic efforts of a trusted climbing partner.

For the first seven hours immediately after the accident, Thomas said, Nappi engaged in a demanding one-man rescue effort. He climbed down to Butler, assessed his injuries and stabilized his friend as best he could. Then he went several miles back to the park's Serenity Falls hut, got a sled, sleeping bags and a tent, returned to Butler, lowered him in the sled to a place where a helicopter could land just above the Eklutna Glacier, put up the tent, and put his injured friend inside wrapped in two sleeping bags.

Having by that point done all one man could do at the scene, Nappi went for help. It was near 6 p.m., and he'd already been through an exhausting ordeal, Thomas said, but still Nappi pushed on along the 13-mile trail that winds and rolls from the hut to the campground at the north end of Eklutna Lake.

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