Pulmonary Edema or Pneumonia, Alaska, Mt. McKinley

Publication Year: 1980.


Alaska, Mt. McKinley

Georg Wudi (35) was a member of the West German Mount McKinley Expedition. Bad weather delayed their departure for several days, but they were flown to the southeast fork landing strip on June 28. They immediately began a rapid ascent despite earlier warnings from Ranger Nick Hartzell to climb slowly and acclimatize to the altitude.

On July 1, at 11 a.m., pilot Jim Sharp was making a routine flight around the mountain when he noticed an SOS stamped in the snow by the Germans, at the 12,500 foot level on the West Buttress. Sharp landed at 14,000 feet where a Swiss group was in radio contact with the Germans below. Apparently on the fast ascent Wudi had developed symptoms of pulmonary edema, and his party was requesting a helicopter evacuation. Sharp instructed the Germans to move Wudi down to 11,000 feet where he thought he could land in his Cessna 185. With assistance from a Japanese party, this was accomplished by 1:30 p.m. Sharp landed at 11,000 feet and took Wudi on board but refused to take any equipment or a healthy climber who requested to be flown out. Sharp departed 11,000 feet about 1:40 p.m. and arrived in Anchorage at 2:40 p.m. Wudi was taken to Providence Hospital.

I called Providence Hospital at 3:40 p.m. and talked to Dr. Samualson in the Emergency Room. He suspected at the time that Wudi might not have been suffering from pulmonary edema, but from a chest infection or pneumonia.

Costs of the rescue were paid by the German party. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mt. McKinley National Park)


Ths is one of several reports which seems to demonstrate that the relatively new alpine style of ascending rapidly (in small parties) brings with it a greater potential for edema or related physiological problems. Quoting from Dr. Charles Houston’s article, “High Altitude Illness Updated: How Fast Is Slow Enough,” (Summit, February- March 1979): “What we do know for sure is that most people develop symptoms and some will die from going too rapidly above 8-10,000 feet.” (Source: J. Williamson)