American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Frostbite, Inadequate Equipment, Bad Weather, Inexperience, Alaska, Mt. McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981


Mike McCoomb (21) was a member of the three-man “Bronze Carabiner Expedition” on the West Buttress of Mt. McKinley. They flew to Kahiltna Glacier on May 4 to begin their climb. On Tuesday afternoon, May 27, he and one other member of his team left the high camp at 17,200 feet for a summit attempt. The third member of the party was not feeling well enough to make the attempt.

At this point, the weather was cold, windy, and deteriorating. Several other expeditions had attempted the summit that day but most of them had started earlier. McCoomb had told another party that they planned to “camp as high on the mountain as they could.” While leaving the camp, another expedition (Boulder/Jackson Expedition) asked McCoomb why he didn’t have his overboots on. McCoomb replied his “fingers got too cold when putting them on.” They continued on up with light bivouac gear (sleeping bags and a tent fly).

The weather became very bad with high winds, low visibility, cold temperatures, and blowing snow. At 19,000 feet, they dug a snow trench and covered it with the tent fly. McCoomb felt that his feet were still OK at this point and in the morning. As the storm still continued on Wednesday morning, they decided to descend. McCoomb estimated the temperature at —20° F. The spindrift in the tent was very heavy and McCoomb had snow in his boots when he put them on. Due to the circumstances, there was snow in both his inner and outer boots during the descent.

McCoomb believes he froze his toes during the descent to the 17,200-foot camp. They were frozen when he checked them at the high camp on the afternoon of May 28.

At 3 p.m. on May 28, Mike Donohue, a guide for Genet Expeditions, radioed out to the southeast fork base camp that McCoomb had severe frostbite and was unable to walk. The message was relayed to Cliff Hudson in Talkeetna. The National Park Service (NPS) at McKinley Park was notified at 3:45 p.m. and Donohue was advised that McCoomb should descend to 14,000 feet if possible.

McCoomb and his party continued down and arrived at the 14,200-foot camp that night. He reports that his feet began to thaw on descent, between 17,000 and 14,000 feet. That night, he used boiling water in plastic bottles to thaw his toes through his inner boots. When they became swollen, discolored, and painful, he began to take codeine and aspirin.

On May 29, the NPS was notified by Dave Pahlke of Mountain Trip that the frostbitten climber was at “15,000 feet.” At 11:02 a.m. Ranger Dave Buchanan in Talkeetna received the message that the victim was at 14,000 feet and requesting evacuation. At this time, McCoomb was in pain and could not put his outer boots on. The RCC had a C-130 flying overhead and was coordinating communications at this time. A helicopter was dispatched from Talkeetna at 12:30 p.m. to pick up McCoomb.

By 1:30 p.m., McCoomb was back in Talkeetna. He did not want to fly on for medical treatment in Anchorage at this time, and was picked up by a friend. (Source: David Buchanan, Park Ranger, Denali National Park)

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