American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Frostbite, Exposure, Bad Weather — Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1983


Alaska, Mount McKinley

Mark Hesse (31) and John Hesse (29) of the Hesse Amputee expedition were flown into Kahiltna Base Camp on April 29, 1982. John had no right leg and Mark’s plan was to assist his brother up the West Buttress route. On May 3, at 3900 meters, John developed a sore shoulder from his crutch/ski; they both returned to Kahiltna Base. John was flown out on May 5.

On May 7, Mark set out to catch Mike Covington’s guided party of 12 on the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. He skied with the group until May 10, then continued alone to the base of the American Direct.

Hesse started climbing on May 11 and spent the next 7½ days on the face. On May 17, he intended to summit but stopped at 5900 meters that evening. A storm moved in and Hesse grew concerned about his exposed position. At 0430 on May 18, he left for the summit, without eating or drinking; he reached the summit at 1100. At 1530, he had descended to 5300 meters, where he was given hot drinks and food before continuing down the West Buttress. Another climber carried Hesse’s pack down the fixed line. At 1950, Hesse arrived at 4400 meters. During the day, six of his fingers had become frostbitten. Dr. Peter Hackett, who was with the High Latitude Research Program, thawed the frozen fingers and administered morphine for pain.

Hackett recommended evacuation from 3100 meters and Ranger Robinson gave his consent. Fred Agree, who had been running a dog sledding operation on the Kahiltna Glacier to explore the potential for business in 1983, was contacted and advised to meet Hesse and Bill Ennis (another injured climber) at 3100 meters to transport them to Kahiltna Base.

At 1200 on May 19, Dr. Holm Newman, who was also with the High Latitude Research Program, accompanied Hesse to 3100 meters. At 1530, Agree sledded Hesse to Kahiltna Base (for a fee of $150.00); Hesse was flown to Talkeetna at 1700 by Doug Geeting. At 2000, Geeting flew Hesse to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


Hesse had suffered similar frostbite on his fingers while climbing the Cassin Route on Mount McKinley in 1979. That year he walked down all the way to the Kahiltna Base Camp.

Hesse felt that Agree’s price was unreasonable and that, had he known the charge before he was tied onto the sled, he would have walked to Kahiltna Base. It is arguable that Hesse’s frostbitten fingers would have been a liability in walking on the glacier. Hesse commented that the 50-minute sled ride was more frightening than his solo climb of the South Face!

After this incident, a misunderstanding developed as to whether Hesse should have paid for the cost of his dog-sled “rescue” or whether the costs should have been borne by the National Park Service. The main reason for this misunderstanding was the lack of direct radio communication between the 4400-meter High Latitude Medical Research camp and the NPS Ranger Station in Talkeetna. Better radio communication could have prevented this.

Hesse is a talented, seasoned climber. His solo ascent of the South Face was a remarkable achievement. (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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