Norman Petty, 77, was well into a 7.4-mile trek through the blusterous Cascade Pass in Washington State when his legs began to give out.
Petty has Parkinson’s disease — a crippling disorder of the nervous system that affects movement — and he had not taken his medication that day, Sept. 10. He could barely stand up, rendering the steep hike down virtually impossible without outside help.
His wife, Barbara Petty, was wondering how she would single-handedly “get Norman down off this mountain” when Catherine Mitchell, a content project manager for Microsoft, came upon the distressed couple while hiking through the icy pass.
Mitchell quickly waved down a small group hiking nearby, which just happened to include U.S. Marine Corps Captain Nick Anthony and his teammates Colin Ayers, Melanie Stam and Ben Stilin.
The group had risen at 4:30 a.m. PST that same morning in order to climb more than 7,900 feet in elevation in North Cascades National Park. By midday, they were “shwacked,” Anthony said according to a Marine Corps press release. “All we were thinking about at that point was having cheeseburgers at the end of the climb.”
Unbeknownst to them, they would soon be faced with the daunting task of carrying Norman Petty through miles of snow and ice.
Upon reaching Norman Petty — who served as a U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer in the 1960s — Anthony and Ayers learned of the man’s debilitating condition and hastily formulated a plan. By holding a pair of trekking poles over their shoulders, the two men created a support system for Petty that lessened the pressure on his legs. Petty draped his arms over the poles and the group shuffled their way down the mountain.
“We felt a sense of duty to care for him,” Anthony said. “Ethically, we couldn’t leave someone who needed medical attention, especially knowing we had the ability to help.”
The group worked as a team. As Ayers and Anthony supported Petty, Mitchell lit up the trail and encouraged Petty’s wife. But as the day closed in and the temperature nose-dived, progress became slower and slower. The group realized they would need to carry Petty, whose condition continued to worsen, in order to complete the trek.
Ayers and Anthony got creative. Using anything they could find, the two devised an improvised litter. In a stroke of luck, a large group of climbers approached them on the trail just as they finished building the litter.
The larger group reinforced the litter with a hammock they had on hand, and nine people – including Ayers and Anthony — carried Norman Petty down the mountain.
“Their ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance was incredible,” Petty told the Marine Corps Press, referring to Anthony and Ayers. “I was worried I might fall off the cliff, but they took hold of the available materials and prevented that.”
The team reached the base of the mountain at 10 p.m. that evening, where they were greeted by Ranger Scott Schissel and medical personnel. After evaluating and treating Petty, the medical personnel allowed his wife to transport him back home.
“This was a life-changing event,” Petty said. “We were so fortunate to encounter Washingtonians who, without any hesitation, decided to help us get down the mountain. They were giving, caring people and weren’t looking for accolades.”
The debacle added an extra four hours to the group’s hike, but each person expressed gratitude for the opportunity to help the couple at a critical time. And they were well-rewarded for their efforts at the nearest open restaurant, which they finally reached at 1:30 a.m. the next morning.
“Denny’s has never tasted so damn good!” Anthony said.
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