American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Alaska, Mt. McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970

Alaska Mt. McKinley. Upon reaching the 17,200 foot camp on the West Buttress route at 3:30 p.m. on 26 June John Waterman (16) did not feel well. John got into his sleeping bag in the ice cave at this camp and remained there for the rest of the afternoon. By 6:00 p.m. it looked as if he had severe discomfort (he indicated he had a bad headache). At about 7:00 p.m. he had supper in his sleeping bag and vomited it up at about 7:30 p.m. Since John’s symptoms seemed similar to those of a member of a previous party at the same camp and that climber had died at that camp, (see previous report) it was decided to take John down to the

foot camp. It took about one hour to melt water for the descent and organize food and equipment. When John tried to put on his wind pants and lace his shoes at about 8:20 p.m., it was apparent that he had lost some coordination. Bradley Snyder and Tom Frost roped up with John tied to the middle of the rope. Ed Nester aided in the first 500 vertical feet of descent by helping John maintain his balance. During the descent John again vomited and took a number of rest stops during which he lay flat on his back. The lower camp was eventually reached.

On 29 June John took a hike up to the 17,200 foot camp to see if he would feel better at that elevation after a stay at 14,200 feet. On 30 June John, long with Tom and Brad, went up to the 17,200 foot camp. On 2 July all three made the summit (Tom and Brad had also made the summit on 28 June).

Source: Edward Nestor.

Analysis: At the time, it did not appear that we were gaining altitude too rapidly. John arrived at base camp (el. 7,400 feet.) On 14 June. The first night at Camp 2 (el. 11,100 feet) was spent on 22 June. Camp 3 at el. 14,200 feet was set up on 24 June. John’s resting pulse rate on the first night at 14,200 feet was 92 (expedition members’ resting pulse rates varied from 80 to 112 at this time with most of them in the low 90’s). June 25th was used as a rest day at 14,200 feet and the 26th was the day we packed up to 17,200 feet.

Everyone on the expedition agreed that we would not have taken John down on the night of the 26th if we had not heard of the fatality at the 17,200 foot camp that had occurred about a week before this incident. (See preceding report on Gary Cole.) It was frightening to see how rapidly John (who is a very strong backpacker) lost strength at the 17,200 foot camp. If John had stayed at the 17,200 foot camp overnight and if the rate of deterioration had continued during the night, John would not have been able to descend to 14,200 feet on the 27th.

Although one of the members who climbed to the summit on 28 June could not keep food down on that day, this member did not lose strength as John did. It appears that rapid deterioration occurs only if a person gets sick very soon after reaching high altitude.

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