American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaska, Mount Sanford

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1974

Alaska, Mount Sanford. On May 12th Bjarne Holm (age 22), Jurgen Kienle (34), Earl Redman (24), and Jack Solomon (20) were flown to the 7,000-foot level of Mount Sanford’s Sheep Glacier, and that same afternoon they started up the glacier. They had not had much sleep the night before, but they pushed on to 9,000 feet, where they set up camp. The next day they climbed hard, skiing four miles and ascending 4,000 vertical feet to their second camp at 13,000 feet. Kienle and Solomon were exhausted by the climb, but Holm and Redman felt fine and made an excursion to the summit of the “Bump,” 13,300 feet. They too were exhausted and feeling the altitude when they returned to the tent. Redman ate some dinner, Holm and Kienle had only soup, and Solomon simply crawled into a corner without eating or drinking. He had about one pint of water that day. During the night Solomon mumbled incoherently. Early the next morning he complained of dizziness. At 8 o’clock he was stuporous and could not be roused. The other three thought that it was “only” the altitude and that he would “come around” as they had the night before. They tried with limited success to get him to drink. Holm and Kienle started for the summit that evening, after 50 m.p.h. winds had abated. Five hours later they had gained 2,000 vertical feet and were very fatigued. In wind and darkness they turned around and descended to the tent. As they lit the stove to heat water Solomon perked up. He was able to drink a little before dozing off again. On the 15th attempts to assist Solomon in drinking were only partially successful. He asked for help to go out of the tent to urinate, but several times in the course of an hour he was unable to urinate. By noon he was unconscious and had gurgling sounds in his chest. Solomon was zipped into a sleeping bag and lashed to a sled made of skis, poles, and packframes. It was difficult to guide the sled down through howling wind and crevasse fields. At the 9,000-foot camp they radioed their pilot for a pickup the next day. In the morning they descended an additional 2,000 feet, and Solomon regained consciousness and was able to talk coherently. The plane arrived promptly at 10 a.m., and Solomon was taken to the hospital in Glenallen, where oxygen was administered. He was flown by Army helicopter to Anchorage, where examination showed both lungs very congested and one lung punctured and collapsed. Fortunately, surgery was not required and he was discharged after a week of hospitalization. (Sources: Holm, Redman.)

Analysis: Solomon’s case shows a typical progression from fatigue to altitude sickness to pulmonary edema. If the collection of fluid in the lungs is not arrested, death by suffocation follows. The problem is caused by a too rapid move to higher altitudes. It is exacerbated by low fluid intake — Solomon drank one pint on the second day instead of the four to six quarts customary for hard work at high altitude. The reaction of individuals to altitude varies greatly. The other three in the party had their problems but were able to acclimatize. It is only too natural to hope that the sick person will “come around’’ and obviate the need for evacuation and the end of the climb, but once fluid begins to collect in the lungs a spontaneous recovery is not to be expected. If the party had been on more difficult ground and unable to carry Solomon to a lower elevation, he likely would have died at the 13,000-foot camp. The only good course of action is descent, for once an individual is unable to eat and drink the effects of altitude and illness begin to compound themselves. It appears that high altitude may have continued to affect the mental processes of the other three, dulling their appreciation of the serious situation.

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