American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cerebral Edema, Washington, Mt. Rainier

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

CEREBRAL EDEMA

Washington, Mt. Rainier

Breck Haining was airlifted from the Emmons Glacier on Mt. Rainier on August 15 after suffering a seizure which may have been caused by cerebral edema, a rare high altitude sickness. He was discharged from Harborview Medical Center on August 16.

Haining, who was making his fifth ascent of Rainier this summer with the “High Adventure” program from Boy Scout Camp Sheppard, was stricken shortly after the 13-member party reached Camp Schurman on Steamboat Prow at 9,500 feet.

John Krambrink, Pacific Crest District Ranger, said Haining, an experienced climber, exhibited the “classic symptoms” of cerebral edema (accumulation of fluid in the brain, severe weakness, severe frontal headache, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing and convulsions).

“The weather was off and with a very dense cloud ceiling above Schurman,” Krambrink said, but an Army Chinook helicopter from Ft. Lewis was able to slip through a break in the clouds and pick Haining up about 5 p.m. (Source: Seattle Post Intelligencer, August 17, 1979).

Analysis

Dr. Rob Schaller, the team physician for both the 1975 and 1978 K2 expeditions and a longtime climber in the Northwest, said he knows of no documented case of cerebral edema on Rainier.

“It is one of the rarest forms of high altitude sickness but very dangerous,” Schaller said. “A person can be strong and healthy one minute and comatose in a matter of hours. ”

“The only definitive studies on the cerebral edema have been done by British physicians in the Himalayas,” Schaller said, “but they show a mortality rate of 40-50 percent. ”

Krambrink and Lou Whittaker, operator of the guide service at Rainier, both praised the “High Adventure” program set up by Max Eckenburg, and Krambrink noted that Haining’s party handled the emergency like veterans. (Source: The Seattle Post Intelligencer, August 17, 1979)

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