- Associated Press - Saturday, June 28, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Courtney Sappington opened her eyes to a cool blast of thin Mount Rainier air.

She knew where she was - on her back about 12,000 feet up the mountain in Washington state - but she wasn’t sure why. She took in the concerned faces of her husband and other climbers standing in a circle around her. She felt the oxygen tubes coming from her nose.

Something was wrong.

“Nothing registered,” she said. “It was like my brain was firing on three cylinders instead of eight.”

Sappington, 27, soon would learn she had been out for about two minutes, experiencing the first seizure of her life on top of Disappointment Cleaver, one of the mountain’s steepest slopes. The seizure had forced her shoulder out of its socket, but that wasn’t the only danger.

The group had turned around an hour earlier because of an avalanche risk. They had to get off the mountain, and there was no way of knowing if she would seize again on the 6-hour descent.

“If I’m not in the best condition, that puts other people in danger, too,” she said. She had been tethered to her husband and guide for the past day and a half. “If I had another seizure, I could potentially be pulling other people down with me.”

That was Wednesday, May 28. The next day, on the other side of the mountain, an avalanche would claim the lives of four experienced climbers and two guides - Mount Rainier’s second most deadly avalanche in its history.

Lawrence residents Courtney and Daryl Sappington, 28, were set to take off for the 56-hour, 14,409-foot climb at 9 a.m. Monday, May 26. With their 30-pound bags packed and a couple protein bars, the couple and the other eight climbers, including four guides with International Mountain Guides, were ready to go.

Before they started, one of the guides handed Sappington a small plastic pack carrying a tracking device. She was told to keep it on her body, under her coat, at all times. In case of an avalanche, the guide explained.

“Oh, to help people find us if that happens,” Sappington said, feeling reassured.

“No,” the guide replied. “To find your remains.”

If they need to use the avalanche beacon to find you, it usually is too late, she learned. The same device would help rescuers figure out what happened to the six lost climbers a few days later.

The first part was enjoyable, Sappington said: The trees, the misty snow, the slow but steady incline she described as a ski slope.

Once they hit 8,000 feet, though, she could tell a difference. No amount of running on her breaks at the Payless headquarters in Topeka or the four months spent climbing up and down and up and down the seemingly monstrous hills of Lawrence could prepare her for the thin air of a higher altitude. At 8,000 feet, the air contains about 25 percent less oxygen than at sea level.

“It was like you were always out of breath,” she said.

By the end of that first day, after eight hours of climbing, the group broke through the clouds. They rested at Camp Muir - an elevation of 10,080 feet - knowing the second day meant glacier climbing - and being roped in with two other people.

Sappington barely slept that night, but she said she hoped she could make it through on the adrenaline and near constant intake of water. She didn’t realize those two factors would play a major role in her experience two days later.

The 10 hikers climbed for just five hours on that second day, to 11,000 feet. They needed to get as much sleep as possible for the third day - a 17-hour day of hiking to the summit and then back down the mountain.

After a second fitful night of next-to-no sleep, Sappington switched on her lamp and started the climb in pitch black.

“The guide told us this climb was best in the dark,” she said, “so we couldn’t see the drop-off behind us.”

After a roughly 1,000-foot climb up 30-to 45-degree slopes of rock and ice, the group crested Disappointment Cleaver. They rested, briefly, to catch a beautiful, breathtaking sunrise before they continued to trek up the mountain, just 2,000 feet shy of the summit. By then, the hooks from their boots - crampons - weren’t making much of a difference in the half-foot of fresh powder.

The group made it another hour before turning around, 1,000 feet short of the peak.

Just an hour later, the group would be back at Disappointment Cleaver.

The Sappingtons led the pack up the mountain, so they were last to arrive at the resting point. The couple swung their packs around to use them as chairs.

As soon as his wife sat down, Daryl noticed she was gasping for air and making a strange, almost groaning noise.

“I couldn’t really tell what she was doing,” he said. “I almost thought she was goofing around, it was such a weird sound.”

Then her left arm twisted awkwardly above her head, and she fell to the ground, convulsing.

Courtney remembers nothing of those two minutes in the seizure, and, honestly, Daryl’s memory is spotty, too.

“It was terrifying but surreal at the same time,” he said, “almost like I couldn’t even believe it was happening.”

The guides and a German doctor who happened to be climbing with them went to work, turning his wife on her side so she could ride out the seizure. He saw her eyes roll back into her head and watched, helpless, as his wife of nearly five years shook uncontrollably on the side of a mountain. Daryl did the only thing he could think of: He stroked her hair and whispered in her ear, “you’ll be OK.”

Sappington remembers waking up to a circle of concerned faces and an oxygen tube running from her nose. Oxygen and other emergency supplies were stored at the resting point.

The German doctor popped her arm back in its socket, but she couldn’t use it, and no one knew whether she would seize again. Short-roping her into her husband and guide was out, particularly considering the steep decline they had to traverse.

“The idea of hiking another seven hours down the mountain, I didn’t think I could do it,” she said.

The next best option: Call in a helicopter. But not just any helicopter would do - it had to be an Army twin-blade to reach that altitude. She wondered just how much that would cost, but it wasn’t her call, and there were other safety issues to consider.

The wind generated by the helicopter would be so forceful, the rest of the group, including her husband, would have to leave her behind with one guide. And she and the guide would have to be staked into the side of a mountain.

So Sappington watched Daryl’s back as he and the others headed down the mountain.

The guides were great about radioing in updates. He knew when she was safely aboard the helicopter, when she had landed and when she arrived at the military base in Tacoma. The descent took Daryl about five hours - the group moved at a faster clip, he said, because of incoming weather. It had been 55 hours since they left.

Sappington was in the hospital for about eight hours. The couple flew home to Kansas the next day. It wasn’t until the following day that they started getting the frantic texts from friends and family, hoping they weren’t among the six climbers who were reported missing.

“It’s sobering,” Sappington said of considering how close they were to danger. “Everything we did was relatively safe, but there’s always that risk.”

All of her tests came back normal, she said, but her arm had to be in a sling for about a week. A month later, it still is on the mend.

Sappington’s doctors haven’t been able to tell her much about her seizure up on the mountain. Some have attributed it to the high altitude, lack of sleep and low electrolytes. At least 10,000 people climb Mount Rainier each year, and seizures happen so rarely, it is barely given a second thought. High-altitude seizures have shown up in a few medical journals in the past decade, but they aren’t well documented.

Even with the limited information, experts have told her she will be OK to climb again - something the Sappingtons agree they want to do again.

“It’s fun to work toward a goal, and it’s something we can do together,” Courtney said.


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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