‘We’ll always be thankful’

Family of rescued ice climber meets duo who saved her life

Denali South District Ranger Tucker Chenoweth, far left, and Mountaineering Ranger/EMS Coordinator Chrissie Oken, far right, pose for a photo with climbers Kevin McGarity and Louie Allen after thanking them for their assistance in the rescue and recovery efforts of Melissa Orzechowski. Rangers Oken and Chenoweth were the two NPS rescuers who were short-hauled to the accident site for the rescue and recovery efforts. (Photo provided — National Park Service)

The family of former North Country School teacher Melissa Orzechowski, who was critically injured during a 1,000-foot fall while climbing Mount Johnson in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve last week, was able to meet the two climbers who saw the fall and kept Orzechowski safe through the night as they waited for rangers to arrive with a helicopter.

Orzechowski’s family got to meet the climbers — Kevin McGarity and Louie Allen — in person this week, to thank and hug them. Orzechowski has now been moved out of the ICU. She’s improving but still needs prayers, her aunt Tina Neuenschwander said.

Orzechowski was climbing with Keene Valley resident Robbi Mecus, a state Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger and a beloved member of the local LGBTQ-plus community. Mecus died in the fall.

McGarity and Allen are both professional mountain guides who were also climbing the 8,400-foot Mount Johnson on April 25 when they saw Mecus and Orzechowski fall on a steep route known as “the Escalator” at around 10:45 p.m. and alerted park rangers. They made their way over to the fallen climbers, but Mecus had already died from her injuries.

According to the NPS, McGarity and Allen dug a snow cave to keep Orzechowski warm while they attended to her injuries throughout the night. In the morning, a helicopter with Denali rangers Chrissie Oken and Tucker Chenoweth was finally able to make the trip out to bring her to a hospital.

“We are grateful for the rescue efforts of Denali mountaineering rangers and the two good Samaritans on Mt. Johnson who helped save a fellow climber’s life,” Denali National Park Superintendent Brooke Merrell said.

Neuenschwander shared accounts from Melissa’s father of them meeting with hugs.

“They were humble. They are great,” he told her. “We’ll always be thankful. And they know Melissa and Robbi would have done the same for them.”

McGarity and Allen told her father they met his daughter and Mecus before the climb, and they remembered Orzechowski’s bright big greeting.

“They helped save the life of a fellow climber in need,” NPS Denali rangers wrote on their blog, adding that McGarity and Allen provided “invaluable assistance” in the rescue.

Orzechowski and Mecus

Orzechowski taught at Lake Placid’s private North Country School and moved to California a year ago.

NCS Director of School Matt Smith said she was a beloved eighth grade English teacher at the school with an “outgoing, warm” personality and a passion for peaks.

“Melissa lives to climb,” Neuenschwander said.

Orzechowski’s former North Country School colleague Jessica Jeffery has organized a GoFundMe campaign to benefit Orzechowski’s care, which her family says could top $100,000. The fundraiser can be found at tinyurl.com/melissaclimb. As of Friday afternoon, $61,363 had been raised.

Orzechowski and Mecus co-organized the annual Queer Ice Festival in Keene.

Mecus is survived by a 10-year-old daughter, her former wife, her brother and sister, and her niece and nephew.

A GoFundMe campaign has been organized to support her family at tinyurl.com/robbimecus. As of Friday afternoon, it had raised $54,963.

In her 25 years as a forest ranger, Mecus regularly attended to the most serious of searches and rescues in the High Peaks, lending her skills in climbing to reach people with broken legs in precarious places, striking out in the worst weather to save lives in the woods, searching for abducted children and fighting wildfires around the U.S.

Mecus was a proud, out, transgender woman who started at the age of 44, about a year after she moved to Keene Valley. She said she had spent her whole life knowing that she was a girl.

Her visibility inspired many in a region where there are few openly queer leaders and limited queer representation in the outdoor recreation community.

Writer, ranger, hero

More than one week since the death of Mecus, stories of her impact and legacy continue to be shared by those who knew her.

In addition to her impact as a ranger and LGBTQ-plus advocate, Mecus was also a writer, getting her work published in the climbing magazine “Alpinist” where she describes her experiences in the wilderness, on rescues and as a transgender woman.

“Over my years as an Alpinist editor, she was also one of the best writers I ever worked with,” former Alpinist Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives wrote on social media.

Ives said Mecus’ essay “Perspective,” published in Alpinist 65 in 2019, is “one of the most beautiful articles we ever published.”

In it, she talks about the anxiety of coming out as transgender in the climbing community. She describes the difficulties, as well as the acceptance, while sitting on the Brownstone Wall at Juniper Canyon in Nevada.

“I close my eyes, and I recall a time when I didn’t think this would be possible — to allow myself to be who I am and still come to these places with friends like him [her climbing partner],” Mecus wrote. “I once thought death would be easier than giving myself the simple dignity of existing as I am. Tears moisten my cheeks, and I pull my sunglasses over my eyes.”

“Everything is the same, but it’s totally different,” Mecus wrote.

In Alpinist 77’s “Full Value,” published in 2022, she recalls the doubt and fear of the dangerous winter rescues she took on in the High Peaks, the weight of the responsibility of being someone’s only source of hope to keep alive, and the persistent memories of the past she’d mull over to keep moving forward.

Mecus was part of the search for survivors in the rubble of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, and had permanent health effects from her time looking for bodies at ground zero of the fallen buildings she grew up looking at from her bedroom window in Brooklyn. She had been a forest ranger for two years at that point.

“I’m up in the woods, working in the woods, and all of a sudden, I’m sifting through smoldering debris,” she said in an interview with the New York City Trans Oral History Project in 2019.

She said she was never able to revisit the site of the Twin Towers again.

“Of all the writers I worked with, she was one of those who cared the most about improving her literary craft and about using stories to help people, to give voice to experiences that don’t get heard as much,” Ives told the Enterprise. “Most of all, I remember the depth of her love for her daughter.”

She said Mecus created and self-published fantasy books as gifts for her daughter.

“She was so enthusiastic about those books she was making for her daughter — with elaborate plots and beautiful illustrations,” Ives wrote in a message. “There are so many things I wish I’d said to Robbi while she was alive, but most of all I wish I’d told her that I loved her spirit too.”

“She was truly talented, and she had a lot more stories to tell,” she told the Enterprise.

An Alpinist podcast episode including an interview with Mecus and a recording of her reading “Perspective” can be found at tinyurl.com/k88zsdub.

She also is a contributing author to an anthology comic book set to be published in June titled “Becoming Who We Are: Real Stories About Growing Up Trans.”


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