AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Cerebral Edema, Exhaustion, Bad Weather, Alaska, Mt. McKinley


Alaska, Mt. McKinley

On the morning of June 22, while at 14,000 feet on the West Buttress, Charles Prentice (33) complained of headache. His group carried a load to 16,500 and Prentice did as well as the others. Four days after reaching 14,000 feet, the group moved to 17,000 feet. Prentice was slow on the ascent and lost his sleeping bag when it fell out of his pack. Prentice borrowed a sleeping bag shell from another team to use at this higher camp.

The next day the team made an attempt in marginal weather to go to the summit. They turned back because of wind. Prentice moved in with the Japanese team that night because their tent was warmer. He complained of headache and was lethargic and disoriented. Also, he was not in contact much with the rest of the team. The team had three days of very windy weather and were unable to move. During this time Prentice’s condition worsened. Prentice was given about one hour of oxygen (left from a previous rescue).

When the weather cleared, Charley Campbell (the guide) decided the team was not strong enough to evacuate Prentice. The team descended, hoping to get help from below. They did not effectively organize a rescue team and descended to base camp to call for a rescue. Prentice, at 17,000 feet with Campbell, was unconscious at times for the next two days. Finally, after what the pilot of the Army CH47 helicopter called a “semi-controlled crash” landing at 17,000 feet, Campbell and Prentice were flown to Anchorage. (Source: Nick Hartzell, Mt. McKinley National Park)


The only cure for altitude sickness, in this case cerebral edema, is descent. The team should have begun the descent with Prentice as soon as they suspected illness. By delaying, the team was exhausted by the storm and did not feel capable of bringing the victim down. The usual course cerebral edema takes is to progress from unconsciousness to death.

It is extremely important for a guide to realize the hazards involved in high altitude mountaineering with inexperienced climbers. The client depends to a great degree on the judgment of the guide. In this case, the team was placed in a position where they lacked the strength, experience, and leadership to safely evacuate the victim. (Source: Nick Hartzell, Mt. McKinley National Park)