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How Calling on Priesthood Power Helped a Mountain Guide Save a Man Stuck in a Crevasse

by | Nov. 04, 2019

Mormon Life

No traffic. No noise. No distraction.

There was only the sound of snow crunching underneath Stacy Taniguchi's boots as he slowly navigated his way through a glacier near the base of the tallest mountain peak in Alaska: Denali.

Though the glacier appeared to be mostly covered in snow, it wasn't. Hidden cracks or crevasses, some thousands of feet deep, lay underneath a crust of snow known as snow bridges. In some places, the snow bridges were several feet thick. In other places, it was mere inches.

"Some of these cracks are big enough that you could take the car that you own, drop it in the hole, and you will never hear it touch the sides or hit the bottom. So you don't want to fall into these things," Stacy says.

To make matters worse, the sun had been unobscured by clouds or storms for the past few days, melting the snow. The very snow Stacy, a mountain guide, and his novice companion, Denny, now had to transverse.

It was because of this, in fact, that Stacy found himself ahead of Denny. Roped to Denny with a 50-foot rope, Stacy's job was to probe the snow, testing its depth and charting a safe course for Denny and himself. Though it is traditionally safer to have the more experienced climber in the back instead of leading, this situation was different.

Not long before reaching the glacier, Stacy had stared at the scarlet snow where Denny had coughed up blood, a sign of acute mountain sickness.

After climbing thousands of feet back down the mountain, Denny had called back to Stacy and asked that he lead through the glacier. The stress on Denny's already deteriorating body had taken its toll, and he was unwilling to go forward unless Stacy led.

As Stacy carefully probed the snow, just as he had down for hours now, he suddenly found himself flat on his back, sliding on the snow. A quick turn of his head revealed only snow where Denny's 6'4" body had stood just moments before. Precious seconds ticked by as Stacy realized what had happened: Denny had fallen into a crevasse, and if Denny kept falling, the rope tethering them together would pull Stacy into the crevasse as well. But there was still hope. If Stacy acted quickly, he could stop their fall.

His only chance was to get his ice ax and anchor it in the snow, hopefully creating enough friction to stop his and Denny's fall. The only problem was Stacy couldn't remember which side of his pack he had hooked his ice ax to.

"Now, the story of my life is I'm never picking the right thing the first go around," Stacy says. "When I go to church on Sunday, I come to the double doors, I always pick the door that's locked. The other door is the one that's open. I can come back the next week and say, 'Oh, well that door was locked last week, I'll pick this door.' No. That door now is locked. I got to use the other door. So I'm thinking like, 'Oh man, my choice of getting it right the first time is not that good.'"

At that moment, CTR, choose the right, flashed through Stacy's mind. It was a strange thought to have before plunging thousands of feet to his death, and Stacy took it as a sign.

With no time to choose the wrong side, Stacy reached to his right. If he was wrong, both he and Denny were dead. No one would know where to find them. No one would know what had happened. They would simply disappear off the face of the earth. But more than that, Stacy would have broken a promise he made only a few weeks ago to Denny's fiancée.

But this life of ice and snow, life or death, wasn't something Stacy had been born into. In fact, crystal blue ocean waves, sandy beaches, and palm trees were far more familiar to Stacy during his early years on the island of Molokai, Hawaii.

And by all means, Stacy could have stayed on the Hawaiian island his whole life, surfing and living a life in a familiar paradise.

But when Stacy came across an article in Life magazine, something very much like adventure stirred in his soul.

"In the very back, kind of the picture of the week, there was a gentleman holding up a piece of paper, and it just looked like it had an itemized list, and the caption at the bottom was 'He completed his list.'" Stacy says. "And basically what it was was he had created a list of the things he wanted to do and learn and accomplish in his life, and he had completed the list. And I thought, 'That's kind of interesting.'"

And when Stacy's sister married her husband, a man who worked in the military, Stacy decided to move with them. Stacy says his father passed away when he was a 1-year-old, and he looked to his brother-in-law as a father figure. And as they moved from Hawaii to Japan to California to Illinois, to Washington to California to Alaska, Stacy's list of things he wanted to do and learn steadily grew over the next 10 to 12 years to include 100 items. And among those 100 items was to climb mountains, something he couldn't really do back on Molokai. "For some reason, I just thought climbing a mountain would give you a better view of things," he says.

As the years went by and Stacy became an adult, he eventually made his way to Utah to help one of his former ski instructors with a study while also getting his master's degree. While in Utah, Stacy met his future wife, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Stacy had grown up Buddhist and hadn't really thought of converting to another religion. But as their relationship deepened Stacy knew he had a choice to make.

"She's an active member of the Church, and I'm thinking, 'Okay how bad is this to join an organization where they are really just trying to do good?'" Stacy says. "And the thing that really caught my attention was they are not wishy-washy in gray areas. . . . And I'm probably about as wishy-washy as anybody. You give me a little bit of gray area and I'll take advantage of the gray area. And I thought, 'You know what? If I'm going to be a husband and I'm going to be a dad, I don't want to be wishy-washy.'"

Stacy decided to join the Church and, once married, he and his wife moved to Alaska where one of Stacy's jobs was to be a wilderness adventure guide for people who wanted to climb Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America.

And in one of these groups was Denny, a 6'4", 230-pound cop who always dreamed of climbing Denali. Fortunately, Denny's police department would sponsor his climb if he tied it into a charity. And so for every thousand feet Denny climbed up the 20,310-foot-tall mountain, a certain amount of money would be donated to a charity.

Like Stacy always does, he met with the group he was climbing with, including Denny, for a gear check. But afterward, Stacy had a conversation with Denny's fiancée he will never forget.

"She said, 'Stacy, I am Denny's fiancée, and we're going to get married about two weeks after you get back from the mountain, so I need you to do something for me,'" Stacy remembers. "And I thought, 'Okay, what do you want me to do?' And she said, 'I want you to promise me that you'll bring him back alive.'"

At first, Stacy thought she was joking, but the look in her eyes said something else. It was a promise Stacy knew he couldn't keep, and he explained that to Denny's fiancée. There were many risks that came with climbing Alaska's tallest mountain peak, and Stacy couldn't protect Denny from all of them. But Denny's fiancée continued to ask for Stacy's word.

To get out of the uncomfortable situation, Stacy says, "I nonchalantly said, 'I promise.'"

And honestly, Stacy forgot about the strange conversation.

But even with Denny's desire to reach the top of Denali, it soon became apparent that the climb was going to be difficult. Because of the extreme altitude, Stacy says only about half the people who set out to climb Denali made it to the top. And mountain sickness—symptoms from the change in oxygen levels that include vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and trouble sleeping—is a common plight among climbers, and Denny was no exception.

To help combat the toll increasing altitude can have on the body, climbers will often climb four to six miles, bury nonessential camp supplies and gear deep in the snow, climb back down, and spend the night in lower altitude. In the morning, climbers will climb to the altitude where they left their supplies and repeat the process to help their bodies acclimatize.

But Denny's body wasn't acclimatizing to the taxing altitude. In fact, it only appeared that he was getting worse as he struggled to sleep at night and battled nausea. And after reaching 14,000 feet or about halfway up the mountain, Stacy noticed that the group huddled around Denny.

"I notice by Denny's feet there is a red spot on the ice," Stacy says. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh he just has an upset stomach. He probably threw up the cherry Kool-Aid that we gave everybody that morning to put in their water bottles.' But as I get closer, I'm realizing that's not Kool-Aid. That's blood."

It was a sign of pulmonary edema, excess fluid accumulating in Denny's lungs from acute mountain sickness that could turn fatal.

Stacy decided to take Denny back to the previous camp and wait to see if he could recover enough to continue the trip. But after a few hours at a lower altitude, it became apparent that Denny wasn't getting better—he was getting worse. The only option was to get Denny off the mountain.

But there was one very dangerous obstacle in their way: a thinly covered glacier. Situated just six miles above base camp, the glacier should have taken only a few hours to cross. But with the recent snowmelt, the process had become painstakingly slow as Stacy and Denny carefully probed their way across a minefield of snow and ice.

"Every step you take, the snow is soft enough that your foot sinks in," Stacy says. "Now, most of the time, it'll sink into your ankle or maybe to your mid-calf, but sometimes you're on one of the weak snow bridges and your foot pops all the way through and you know you're on a very delicate bridge that hasn't collapsed."

Which was how Stacy found himself quickly sliding toward oblivion. And he didn't have time to second-guess which side his ice ax was on.

"At the time, my calling in the Church was, I was teaching Primary, CTR 8. And believe it or not, that's what I thought of at that time, CTR—why not choose the right?" Stacy says.

Reaching to his right, Stacy's hand closed around his ice ax. Slamming it down into the snow and ice, Stacy felt himself beginning to slow, but he didn't stop.

He slid a few more feet on the snow, then a few more. First his toes, then his feet hit the open air. With only a few more feet to spare, Stacy came to a stop.

Anchoring the rope in the ice, Stacy was able to detach himself from the tether and look over the edge. Denny was there, hanging about 40 feet in a dark abyss.

After some reluctance, Denny cut the 50 to 70-pound sled carrying his supplies and dropped his 30-pound backpack. Neither Denny nor Stacy ever heard or saw the supplies hit the bottom.

But even after Denny dropped roughly 100 pounds of gear, pulling him up wasn't an option. The heat from the friction of Denny sliding over the lip of the crevasse had heated the snow into a liquid, which quickly froze in the subfreezing weather until it was encased in ice. If Stacy chipped at the ice to pull the rope out, he risked cutting the rope.

The only option was for Stacy to call for help on a CB radio. But, after several tries, no one answered. Though Stacy was able to heat water and send it down to Denny, there was little else he could do over the next few hours. With the temperature inside the glacier about 40 degrees colder than above, Denny was beginning to show symptoms of hypothermia as he sat in -30 degrees.

"And I'm yelling at him, 'Denny, don't fall asleep because if you fall asleep, I lose you,'" Stacy says. "'You got to stay with me. Talk to me, and drink the hot water.' But I could tell this is not turning out well. He is dying on me. And then I remembered the promise. I had promised his fiancée that I would bring him back alive. And that hit me like a ton of bricks. At that moment, I knew I'm to break this promise. I'm going to have to go home and tell her, 'I'm sorry, but we lost Denny.'"

With no one around to help, having exhausted every other option to rescue Denny, Stacy had a thought. He remembered that he had received the priesthood, the authority to call upon the powers of heaven. He had a portion of the power that created the earth. The power that could heal. The power that could move mountains.

Previously, Stacy said he didn't have a real testimony of these things.

But with nothing else to do, Stacy knelt in the snow of the deserted glacier.

"I said, 'If this is real, I need to know now. I have done the best I could to be faithful to this religion. I have practiced and gone to church like I have been asked to do. I have tried to give service when I could. But this is something that I need for myself to know, is this true?'" Stacy says. "And I don't even know if I said 'amen,' but that's how serious I was."

In one last desperate attempt, Stacy called out for help on the CB radio again.

There was crackling on the other end.

Then there was a voice.

A ranger who wasn't supposed to be on the mountain for another week had come early to help clean up base camp with his girlfriend, who happened to be a nurse. Not only that, but he had brought a satellite radio that could call emergency helicopters.

Typically, emergency helicopters are usually located hours away from where Stacy and Denny were on Denali. But a pilot flying a helicopter happened to be only 10 minutes away when the ranger called. In 10 minutes, both the ranger and his girlfriend and the emergency helicopter pilot had found Stacy and Denny.

Stacy was attached to a rope from the helicopter and lowered, into the crevasse where he helped hoist Denny to safety.

After the rescue, Denny recovered. In fact, two weeks later, he married his fiancée. Stacy fulfilled the promise he made.

When Stacy thinks about the promise he made to keep Denny alive and the miraculous answer to his prayer, he can't help but see how that was a turning point in his testimony of the gospel.

"I don't know what anybody else thinks, but for me that day, I converted," Stacy says. "The priesthood is real. Don't ever underestimate that authority. Call upon it. And if you have faith and know that it's real, and you trust the Lord to do the things that you are asking for, miracles will happen because there is no reason on earth why Denny is alive today. . . . He now lives in Alaska, has a family, and I know why he's alive because I know the priesthood is real because of that day on Denali."

Listen to Stacy's story on the This Is the Gospel podcast below or click here to view the transcript and show notes for his story. 

All images courtesy of Stacy Taniguchi 

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