A Slovak mountaineer who single-handedly saved the life of a Japanese climber on Alaska's Mount McKinley in June has been chosen by mountaineering rangers as the 1999 Denali Pro Mountaineer of the Year.
Michal Krissak, 21, saved ailing climber Shigeo Tamoi in June in a rescue made more difficult when other climbers refused to help, according to Alaskan National Park Service rangers Roger Robinson and Daryl Miller.
That left Krissak, a strong 6-foot-4 native of Nová Lesná, Slovakia, alone to get Tamoi to safety.
Krissak had been solo climbing. On his descent from the summit about 9 pm on June 3, he saw Tamoi lying face down in the snow at 19,500 feet. It was apparent Tamoi could not move and remaining there would kill him. A team of five climbers were standing around, but they descended as Krissak approached, Robinson wrote in a report.
To rouse the semi-conscious Tamoi in minus-35-degree chill, Krissak slapped his face several times, he said in an interview this week. Tamoi's water bottle was empty, and he carried no survival gear.
Krissak held Tamoi by the shoulders, and they descended slowly. A group of three climbers who passed them on the way down to Denali Pass would not help until Krissak insisted they at least give Tamoi a drink of water, Robinson wrote.
Krissak said he had to threaten one of the men physically, grabbing the climber at his chest and shaking him until he would give Tamoi a drink.
When they got down to 18,200-foot Denali Pass, a three-man American team spurned Krissak's request to let Tamoi tie onto their rope for the hazardous 1,000-foot descent to the West Buttress high camp.
"Krissak was tired and knew he needed Tamoi on a (rope) belay in order to safely descend the traverse," Robinson wrote. In refusing help, the Americans said "they were cold and needed to keep going down."
Krissak held fast to Tamoi's pack from behind and walked him down the steep traverse. Tamoi fell several times, taking Krissak down with him. Krissak arrested each fall before they started to slide.
They arrived at the high camp about 1 a.m. on June 4. Others there helped stabilize Tamoi until a Korean team took him down to the 14,200-foot ranger camp later that day. He descended the rest of the way without help.
Krissak "felt he did nothing out of the ordinary," said Robinson. In the interview, Krissak said he suffered frostbite on his feet during the rescue, and they pained him all summer long as he worked on a fishing boat out of Kodiak.
A route on McKinley's South Face, the Milan Krissak Memorial, honors Michal Krissak's father, Milan Krissak, a mountaineer who died in 1979 in a helicopter crash while trying to rescue other climbers in his home country's High Tatra Mountains.
The Mountaineer of the Year award was made about two weeks ago. Eight other climbers were nominated. They included two Anchorage climbers, Mike Mays and Gerald McDonald, who helped five fatigued climbers, one of them snow-blind, get down from the summit ridge in worsening weather, the rangers wrote.
This story was reprinted by permission of the Anchorage Daily News, where it first appeared on Saturday, September 11.