Denali ascent – “a closely run summit” by Jimmy Clethero RIP

Many expeditions have untold tales especially in the military this is one is told in my pals words about the late Jimmy Clethero. In these days there were lots of things that remain “untold” I hope you appreciate “ Stampys” account of our mate Jimmy who passed away recently from Cancer.

Denali is a wonderful mountain in Alaska where you have a unique environment. The weather is so severe I spent 3 days stuck in a tent in a blizzard with a sick mate. I feared for my life then it was and did take all my efforts to stay alive. It’s a big mountain no porters and extreme conditions that test the best of the best to summit. This is an account from one of our most underrated mountaineers Jimmy Clethero had he told me many years later. I put it on my wee book to write the tale but it could only be repeated after we left the service. It’s a measure of the msn Jimmy few know the tale another MRT legend tells the tale. It’s a great story of a man we lost to cancer recently. Thank you Stampy for your story I hope it gives you an insight into one of our finest mountaineers.

This is Stampy account:

“Yeah it was good old Rosco who got both Jimmy and I on the exped in May 88 with the PTI’s from Ballachulish (Kev Edwards, Shep Shepherd, Graham Carter and Graham Morrison). This would be the first high altitude experience for both of us.

I can remember the flight onto the Kahiltna glacier base camp via the spectacular ‘one shot pass’ courtesy of Doug Keeting Aviation, Doug himself was piloting the aircraft and on the approach for landing he gave Jimmy the surprise responsibility of pumping the hydraulics to get the undercarriage skids down for landing on the glacier. We both looked at each other as if to say “what the fuck, did he really ask you to do that” but as Jimmy was nearest the pump handle he grinned and shrugged his shoulders and got on with the pumping until Doug was satisfied skids were in the right position.

Jimmy and I were paired up for climbing and tent sharing and Kev Edwards was keen for both of us to take a look at the Cassin ridge but after a recce and seeing the state of the glacier and crevasses of the east Kahiltna fork and approach to the Japanese Couloir, the idea was quickly abandoned.

The West buttress was the focus along with the others. From the 14000 ft camp Kev Edwards decided to send us both and Graham Carter to the summit. After a really cold night at 17000 ft we were glad to be on our way but I was struggling with the altitude and never been so cold (lifa under wear, ron hills, buffallo jacket and goretex was a crap choice and just not enough insulation for some where this cold) We arrived at Denali pass at 18000 ft in poor visibility but were still able follow the wands marking the route. However the visibility was concerning and with the extreme cold, I new I was struggling and I’d had enough.

Jimmy though was going really well and was confident. The choice was hard for both of us to split up, it was decided that me and Graham Carter to return to the tent at 17000 ft and Jimmy to carry on to the summit. There was no conflict or arguing over over our decisions just mutual respect for each others wishes.

Graham Carter descended all the way down to the 14000 ft camp while I remained at 17000 to wait for Jimmy. It was a worrying time in the tent, the wind had got stronger, temperature dropped and visibility worse. I was cursing myself for not trying to talk Jimmy out of going to the summit and was hoping he would realise the conditions were not favourable, abandon his attempt and appear at the tent door any minute.

All the time I was waiting for him I was constantly updating Kev Edwards down at 14000 over the radios we had with us, I could tell how anxious Kev was. The following morning had arrived probably a good 16 hours after I last saw Jimmy and I was fearing the worst. Can’t remember who contacted who first but Kev told me over the radio that Jimmy had just wondered into the camp at 14000!

I got back to 14000 and reunited with Jimmy. He said he was 100% sure he’d reached the summit but had lost the marker wands and got disorientated on the way back, strayed onto steep ground and ended up down climbing what turned out to be rescue gulley average angle 50 degrees which exits a bit further up from the 14000 ft camp.

He wasn’t completely unscathed after his ordeal as his only head gear, the hood on his duvet jacket had been ripped off in the high winds thus sustaining cold injury frost nip to one of his ears. Typical Jimmy seemed to play down his epic and avoiding the fuss just took things in his stride. The doctor in the medical tent at 14000 examined the frost bitten ear and advised our team to get Jimmy off the mountain ASAP. Kev sent both of us back to the Kahiltna glacier airstrip to get the first available aircraft back to Talkeetna.

I remember we had to pack a tent and some gear just before we got to the airstrip. As you probably remember Heavy, having been there yourself, you have take everything off the mountain including those black poly bags that you crap in complete with contents.

Anyway as we were rummaging through the gear deciding who’s was who’s, Jimmy called across to me and said “I think this is yours Stampy”, I turned with open hands to receive the package Jimmy lobbed which thumped me in the chest then realised he had chucked a bag full of shit at me! The grin on his face was a picture. “Ya bastard Jimmy” was my response but couldn’t help laughing at his mischievousness.

We both got back to the Elmandorf USAF base just outside Anchorage where we waited for the others to return, 3 of them summited. The Yank medical staff at the air base were brilliant treating Jimmy’s frost bite, he received daily whirlpool treatment on the ear which got the blood supply back to affected area and prevented further tissue loss. The next few days waiting for the others were spent mooching around the city and drinking in bars. We then learned that 2 Brits we had both met and got quite friendly with whilst on the mountain had been killed in a fall climbing the West Rib. The news brought it home to us both the seriousness of where we had just been especially in Jimmy’s case. Graham Stamp

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Alaska, Articles, Friends, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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