Climbers rescued at 19,500 ft Britons

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The Independent Online
TWO BRITISH climbers have been plucked by helicopter from near the peak of North America's highest mountain in after being trapped at temperatures below -30C.

The third member of their party is missing. He had left his companions to descend in high winds and freezing temperatures to find help at the nearest camp.

Jane Tranel, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Alaska, said the trio had been trapped by a fall 19,500ft up Mt McKinley, 3,700ft from the peak, early on Thursday. Antony Hollinshead, 33, from Shropshire, has frostbitten fingers and toes and Nigel Vardy, 29, from Derbyshire, has frostbitten face, body and fingers. They are in hospital.

Ms Tranel said 42-year-old Steve Ball, from Staffordshire, was heading down to their camp at 14,200ft. She added: "He is a very strong climber and we have no immediate concerns for his safety, although we will search on."

The climbers were rescued by a specialist high-altitude helicopter team in a carbon copy of the rescue of British soldiers on the same mountain last year. A Lama helicopter dropped a radio and insulated "screamer suits" to the stricken pair. The climbers put on the suits and were carried one at a time to the 7,200ft base camp, dangling from a winch. From there they were taken by plane to Anchorage.

Ms Tranel said their injuries were not life-threatening, and they had been "very, very lucky". She said: "Temperatures at the peak were -30C and falling, and the wind was gusting to 70mph. We were very fortunate to get this break in the weather."

Ms Tranel said Mr Vardy had slipped and fallen, dragging his companions with him. She said: "Nigel had been suffering frostbite to his face, and one eye was partially closed." She said Mr Ball and Mr Hollinshead dug in with their ice axes and managed to arrest the fall after 300ft, but Mr Hollinshead apparently injured his shoulder.

The three climbers were all of "good to above-average" experience, Ms Tranel said, and two of them had tackled 20,000 ft peaks before. They had been in the area since 2 May, and their expedition was due to finish in four days.

The men were 300ft higher than Sgt Martin Spooner and Cpl Carl Bougard who were rescued last June after their British Army team got into difficulties on a notorious stretch of Mt McKinley where 15 climbers have died since 1972.