American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary, 1988

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989

Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary, 1988. For the third consecutive year, a new record was set for the number of mountaineers attempting to climb Mount McKinley. Mild weather and few major storms, combined with the increased number of attempts, allowed more successful climbers to stand on McKinley’s summit than ever before. There were three solo winter attempts, of which one was successful. Vem Tejas, an Alaskan resident and McKinley guide, became the first person successfully to complete a winter ascent and return. Tejas climbed the West Buttress route, spending nearly a month on the project. He had very unsettled weather with day after day of low pressure systems bringing snow and poor visibility. This same low pressure also brought unusually mild temperatures. Tejas reported his lowest temperature about -20° F. The High Latitude Research Project received funding and was in full operation. The team continued research into the causes and treatments of high-altitude illness. This season, they concentrated on three major projects. 1. They tested a lightweight, portable pressure bag for the treatment of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). The flexible fabric bag needs no oxygen apparatus, can accommodate one person and can be pressurized with a foot pump to simulate a decrease of altitude. Researchers found the bag to be as effective in the treatment of HAPE as low-flow oxygen. 2. They examined the effect of vasodilation drugs on HAPE victims. Initial testing was quite promising and future study will likely result in an effective medication for HAPE. To date, no drug has proven effective for the emergency treatment of HAPE. 3. Researchers examined the neurological basis of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Brain blood flow was measured to examine its role in AMS. Oxygen delivery to the brain appears to be a critical factor. Breathing of either oxygen or low concentrations of carbon dioxide are both effective in treating high-altitude headaches. New techniques allowed measurements of brain blood flow and pulmonary artery pressures using nonevasive instruments.

Despite the record number of climbers, there were only 12 search-and- rescue incidents. Two were helicopter hoist operations from 18,000 feet on the Cassin Ridge. The National Park service conducted three, three-week patrols on Mount McKinley, as well as numerous patrols into other areas of the Alaska Range. We continue to staff a ranger station in Talkeetna, where mountaineers register for McKinley and Foraker. A strong emphasis is placed upon the importance of environmentally sound expeditionary climbing and sanitation techniques. Additionally, climbers are encouraged to remain self-sufficient and to conduct their own evacuations whenever possible.

Interesting Statistics. In 1988, new records were set for the number of persons attempting to climb Mount McKinley: 1978 = 539; 1979=533; 1980=659; 1981=612; 1982=696; 1983=709; 1984=695; 1985=645; 1986=755;

= 817; 1988 = 916. Success rate: 562 (61%) of those attempting the summit of McKinley, including 15 to the North Summit, were successful. This is the second consecutive year when no one has reached the summit of Foraker. Only two out of 14 people attempting Mount Hunter reached the summit. Record number of climbers on McKinley during a given week: A new all-time high of 326 climbers were on the slopes of McKinley for the week ending June 4. Acute Mountain Sickness: 103 (11%) had symptoms. Of these 56 (6%) were mild, 33 (4%) were moderate and 14 (2%) were severe. The High Latitude Research Project reported 12 life-threatening cases of HAPE in 1988. Frostbite: 38 (4%) reported some degree of frostbite. Of these 7(1%) required hospitalization. West Buttress Route: 782 (85%) of the climbers on Mount Mckinley were on the popular West Buttress. This is the highest percentage we have recorded in recent years. Soloists: 17 persons registered for solo climbs this year. A number were able to team up with other groups once they got to the mountain. One soloist disappeared and is presumed to have died on Mount McKinley. Mountain guiding: 300 (29%) of the climbers on Mount McKinley traveled with one of the authorized guiding companies. The overall success rate of the guided groups was 63%. Most of these trips occurred on the West Buttress, but others attempted the Muldrow, West Rib, Cassin Ridge and South Buttress. Foreign climbers: 329 (36%) of the climbers on McKinley were from foreign countries. 21 nationalities were represented: Austria 14; Australia 2; Canada 31; Chile 4; France 26; Germany 48; Holland 5; Hong Kong 5; Hungary 8; Italy 5; Japan 50; Korea 27; Mexico 9; Norway 9; New Zealand 6; Poland 3; Russia 1; Spain 22; Sweden 3; Switzerland 34; United Kingdom 17. Ascent rates: Foreign climbers continue to ascend at a faster rate than is generally recommended to allow proper acclimatization. This year on the West Buttress route, foreigners averaged 11.25 days to reach the summit, whereas Americans averaged 15 days.

New Routes: Mount McKinley: complete Pioneer Ridge; variation on the Japanese Ramp on the South Buttress. Eye Tooth. East faces of Dickey and Barrill. East face of Royal Tower in Little Switzerland. All these are covered in articles or in the Climbs and Expeditions section.

Accidents: Fall, broken leg, evacuated by own group: On May 9, ten Koreans were descending from the West Buttress. They tried to traverse around Windy Comer in high winds. One rope team slipped and was able to arrest its fall, but one of the members broke his right ankle. This was splinted by a physician from another expedition and the injured man’s team sledded him to Base Camp, where an air taxi operator flew him back to Talkeetna. Frostbite, no rescue: On May 9, three Frenchman left High Camp for the summit on the West Buttress route. One left camp with cold feet and after an hour, felt nothing. Assuming his feet had warmed, he continued to the summit and returned to camp about nine hours later. There, he discovered he had frostbitten all his toes. Although they were thawed in warm water, they froze again during the descent to the Research Camp the following day. Air evacuation was attempted but aborted due to poor weather. The group finally skied back to Base Camp under its own power. Note: He was wearing Randonnée ski boots without overboots or gaiters. This is inadequate foot protection for the arctic environment of Mount McKinley. The ski descent after the freeze, thaw and refreeze apparently did no additional damage. Crevasse fall, frostbite, aircraft evacuation: On May 10, a two-person team from Hong Kong reached the top of the fixed lines at 16,200 feet on the West Buttress. The weather was deteriorating and so they continued to descend the opposite side of the fixed lines to get out of the wind. While cutting a tent platform, one lost his pack towards the Peters Glacier. He began a solo descent to retrieve it but slipped and fell into a shallow crevasse. His partner descended to help. He carried a rope and axe but was not wearing crampons. He too slipped and fell into the same crevasse. Luckily, neither was seriously injured, but with limited gear, it took them 1½ hours to extricate themselves. Both had frostbitten hands and one also froze his feet and suffered a neck injury. They returned to their tent, could not set it up in the high wind and used it as a bivouac sack for the night. In the morning, one man could not walk due to swollen feet and neck injuries. The other descended to the 14,200-foot medical camp for help. The NPS patrol responded and with the assistance of others, lowered the injured and hypothermic climber to the Research Camp. He was later flown out from 14,200 feet by fixed-wing aircraft. Fall with injuries, helicopter rescue: A guide for Genet Expeditions was returning from 19,500 feet on the West Buttress with two clients. They clipped into a short piece of fixed line just above Denali Pass. As the guide, who was last on the rope, unclipped from the line, he either snagged his crampons on the hard snow or was pulled off balance by one of his clients. He fell and slid 80 feet head first into rocks. He received scalp lacerations and what was later determined to be a compression fracture of a cervical vertebra. With assistance from another guided group, the guide was able to walk back to their camp at 17,200 feet. He was later evacuated by helicopter from there along with another Genet Expeditions client who was frostbitten during the following incident. Exhaustion, hypothermia, fatality ; frostbite ; evacuation by helicopter. The chief guide and three clients of the same Genet Expeditions party continued on to the summit after the party in the previous incident turned back at 19,500 feet. At the summit, one of the clients collapsed from exhaustion and quickly developed hypothermia. It was very cold and all other groups had left the upper mountain. By the time the group had assisted the exhausted woman to the 19,500-foot plateau, she was immobile and incoherent. The temperature was -20° F and the wind 20 mph. Visibility was poor because of blowing snow and failing daylight. The guide decided to bivouac, instructing the two remaining clients to dig a snow trench while he descended to retrieve additional gear from 18,500 feet. Shortly thereafter, she became unresponsive. Upon the guide’s return, he determined she had no signs of life. He decided that to save the others in the party they would have to descend without her. During this incident, one of the clients frostbit his feet. He was evacuated from the 17,200-foot camp. Twisted knee, helicopter evacuation: On May 23, a man was descending the West Buttress at 12,000 feet. His team members, a Genet Expeditions guided party, were returning from a load carry to 13,800 feet. The man placed his foot in deep snow at the same time a rope-mate moved forward. He fell and severely twisted his knee. Three days later, the team reached 14,200 feet. The knee slowly became worse. On May 26, he was flown off the mountain. Possible heart attack, fixed-wing aircraft evacuation: On May 24, a 52-year-old member of a Genet Expeditions guided party experienced symptoms of a heart attack while descending from 16,000 to 14,200 feet on the West Buttress. At the medical camp, he was placed on oxygen and given IV fluids. On May 25 he was flown to a hospital in Anchorage. Tests later showed the man had suffered from angina. Perforated ulcer, ground evacuation: On May 24, a 34-year-old man suffered a perforated ulcer while his party was at 11,000 feet on the West Buttress. He was able to descend without assistance to 8700 feet. There, another expedition sledded him down to Base Camp. He was flown back to Talkeetna by an air taxi operator. Reported AMS and frostbite, helicopter evacuation: On May 26, the Talkeetna Ranger Station received “Mayday” calls on CB radio. The reports were in Korean. Then the Koreans tried unsuccessfully to speak English. Eventually it was determined that the reporting party was with another Korean soloist at 18,000 feet on the Cassin ridge and that the soloist was suffering from altitude illness and had frostbitten a “leg” and both hands. He could not walk or use his hands. The two Koreans reporting the incident said they could not lower the man down the route. The US Army’s High Altitude Rescue Team responded and on May 27 hoisted the Korean from 18,000 feet. Once examined, the Korean’s injuries were far less than reported. The necessity of this operation is questionable. The Chinook helicopter conducted the highest hoist operation the Army had ever completed. This was also probably the highest hoist operation ever completed in North America. High-altitude cerebral edema, stroke, helicopter hoist evacuation: On June 3, the same two Koreans that had reported the previous rescue began calling for a rescue themselves. Again, communications were a major obstacle, both in translations and because the Koreans’ radio batteries failed early in the rescue. They reported their position to be 19,500 feet on the Cassin Ridge. They said one of them could not walk because of imbalance. Cerebral edema was suspected, but as the days passed, his condition did not change. The weather prohibited aerial reconnaissance. A ground team was organized from the 17,200-foot camp on the West Buttress. In very poor weather, a team of three pushed to the summit ridge and placed 600 feet of line. One member descended the full length of the line and another 200 feet. From there, the Korean team could be seen far below. They had misreported their position. Eventually the Koreans descended to 18,000 feet where the Army Chinook helicopters hoisted them off the route. The ill Korean was taken to a hospital in Anchorage, where a brain scan showed signs of cerebral edema and a small stroke. During the hoist, he had also suffered a superficial flash freezing of his hands when he removed his gloves to tie into the hoist. High-altitude pulmonary edema, helicopter evacuation: On May 28, medical personnel at the 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress received a report that a Japanese woman also at 14,200 feet needed assistance. When they questioned the other members of the party, they were told she was all right. The next day, following additional reports that she needed help, the medical personnel discovered she had severe HAPE. She was placed on oxygen for three days before she was strong enough to travel on her own. This group was not able to recognize the signs of HAPE. In fact, they had left this woman with two other ill members at 14,200 feet while the rest of the team continued to climb. Both of these people had HAPE! The woman was evacuated in a Chinook helicopter that was in the area for another rescue. Avalanche, no serious injuries: On June 4, four Italians were descending from Kahiltna Pass to the Peters Glacier when they triggered a slab avalanche. Three of the four were caught in the slide. Two were deposited along the edge, while the third was swept into a crevasse. Most of the debris passed over the fortunate climber who was partially buried and unhurt. The group lost most of its equipment and returned to Base Camp to fly back to Talkeetna. Search, person not found and presumed dead: On July 10, a solo Spaniard left Base Camp to climb the West Buttress. Only several days into the climb, returning expeditions reported the soloist was asking others for food and fuel and he appeared poorly equipped. He was seen periodically until July 25. On July 29, what were believed to be his tracks were seen departing from Windy Comer at 13,200 feet and ascending the West Buttress Direct. Later search efforts located wind- eroded tracks leading to his tent at the top of the fixed ropes on the West Buttress at 16,200 feet. Virtually all his equipment was still in his tent, including stove, fuel, pot and sleeping bag. His pack was found at 17,200 feet, sitting in the middle of High Camp. It is believed that he set off for the summit without his pack and never returned. There had been an avalanche above High Camp but to the east of the normal traverse to Denali Pass. Later investigation revealed that he had not planned, prior to his arrival, to climb Mount McKinley nor did he have the experience or equipment for such an undertaking.

Trends and Items of Special Concern: Percentage of foreigners requiring rescues: Foreigners accounted for 36% of climbers on McKinley. Twelve required some sort of rescue effort this year. Seven (58%) were from foreign countries. One of the two fatalities was foreign. Solo ascents: Each year we see more climbers register for solo ascents. This year, 17 persons registered solo. Some of these were able to team up with other expeditions at least to traverse the heavily crevassed portions of the lower glaciers. The following example serves to demonstrate the hazard of solo travel. A guide returning with an ill client to Base Camp elected to picket his pack within a previously used camp on the lower glacier, accompany the ill climber and return solo to catch up with his party. When he got back to his pack several hours later, it was dangling from the picket over a huge, extremely deep crevasse. The guide swore there was no evidence of the crevasse only hours before. Increasing use: In 1988, climbers spent a total of more than 18,000 user days on Mount McKinley alone! Over 15,000 of them were on the West Buttress. This is approximately the same use which occurs annually on Mount Rainier. For more information, please contact me: Robert Seibert, South District, Moutaineering Ranger, PO Box 588, Talkeetna, Alaska 99676. Telephone: 907-733-2231.

Robert Seibert, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

MOUNTAINEERING SUMMARY



Expeditions

Climbers

Successful

Climbers



Mount McKinley



West Buttress

146

524

319



West Buttress (Guided)

32

258

161



Muldrow

4

12

2



Muldrow (Guided)

1

15

14



West Rib

10

25

16



West Rib (Guided)

2

14

13



Cassin

7

27

17



Cassin (Guided)

1

4

0



South Buttress

4

15

5



South Buttress (Guided)

1

9

0



Pioneer Ridge

3

8

4 (N.Peak)



Wickersham Wall

1

212

5

916

0

551



Mount Foraker

1

2

0



Mount Hunter

5

13

2



Mount Huntington

1

2

0



Kahiltna Dome

1

5

0



E. Kalhitna Peak

1

2

2



Mount Russell

1

2

0



Mount Brooks

1

3

3



Mount Brooks (Guided)

2

24

10



Mount Silverthrone

1

6

0



Mount Silverthrone (Guided)

1

19

19



Mount Ragged

1

4

4



Little Switzerland

10

43

N/A



Gorge Peaks

3

5

0



Mount Dickey

1

2

2



Mount Barrille

3

8

6



Mooses Tooth

4

14

8



Mooses Tooth (Guided)

1

4

0



Peak 11,300

4

9

0



Mount Dan Beard

1

4

4



NOTE: Since registration is required only for Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker climbs, statistics for other climbs represent those climbers who voluntarily checked in with the Mountaineering Rangers. Other climbs, especially in the Ruth Glacier area, are likely to have occurred.

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