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Cerebral Edema — Alask, Mount McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 2, 1982, a six-member guided Mountain Trip party led by Gary Bocarde flew to the Kahiltna Glacier to climb the North Buttress of Mount McKinley. On May 6, the party established an advance base on the Peters Glacier at 2500 meters. Over the next 12 days, the party ascended the 3100-meter Northwest Buttress. Good days persisted, so no rest days were taken. On May 17, the party established themselves at a high camp of 5600 meters. The next morning, member John Stolpman (31) began to experience signs of cerebral edema, including loss of coordination and extreme lassitude. (Stolpman was unable to walk a straight line.) At 1400, Bocarde radioed this situation to both Kahiltna Base and to the 4400-meter camp, the High Latitude Research Program (HLRP), and requested advice. The Park Service in Talkeetna, Ranger Scott Gill and a mountain patrol under Ranger Roger Robinson at the 4400-meter camp were also notified. Robinson coordinated with Dr. Peter Hackett of the HLRP and recommended the following: (1) send a rescue team from 4400 meters to aid in Stolpman’s descent; (2) have Talkeetna stand by for an airdrop of 02, fixed line, and hardware; and (3) recommend to Bocarde that Stolpman take Diamox.

At 1700, a rescue team consisting of Fantasy Ridge guides Lance Leslie and Mike Donahue and Brian Okonek of the HLRP departed for the 4400-meter camp on the West Buttress. At 2045, Bocarde transmitted the message that Stolpman had improved, was alert and urinating to Diamox. His party was experiencing -45°C weather conditions with wind; they were also very tired, but due to Stolpman’s condition, must ascend up and through Denali Pass the next day. Because of the terrain, lack of equipment and party strength, Bocarde felt that it would be unsafe to descend back down their route. Bocarde was informed of the presence of the rescue team at 4400 meters and wanted the team to wait there for further instructions. An 0900 call time was arranged for the next morning. On May 19 at 0930, Bocarde reported to the 4400-meter camp and base camp that Stolpman’s condition seemed to improve during the night. As a result, both the airdrop and the rescue team were put on hold. At 1030, Stolpman’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly; Bocarde described him as very “spacey.” Stolpman felt he could not make it. At 1100, Bocarde transmitted this latest development together with his intent to begin moving soon. Hackett recommended that Stolpman be put on Dexadrine. Robinson informed Bocarde that he would soon be receiving an airdrop of 02. Bocarde reported that the weather conditions were stable. At 1200, the Mountain Trip party began traversing toward Denali Pass. Stolpman was “spacey” but able to walk without assistance.

Ranger Gill and pilot Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi departed from Talkeetna with airdrop supplies. At 1300, two drops were made to the Mountain Trip party, including one “E” bottle of 02, one regulator and one Life-O-Gen pack. At 1320, three drops were made to the rescue team at 5300 meters. This drop included 1500 feet of fixed line, one “E” bottle, one Life-O-Gen pack, 02 and seven pickets. Gill and Geeting returned to Talkeetna.

As the slow descent progressed, Stolpman began to lose coordination and took numerous falls without arresting himself. The rescue team fixed 1000 feet of line and reached the Mountain Trip party at 1700. Stolpman was barely able to walk and could not descend without assistance. At the base of the gully, two other parties,

Women on Denali and The Construction Kings, provided shelter and hot liquids for Stolpman and everyone else involved. Stolpman made use of 02 on the traverse ascending to the 5300-meter camp; he became more coherent and stable on 02. The Mountain Trip party spent the night at the 5300-meter camp. Stolman slept on 02 for nearly three hours and, by morning, his condition had improved.

At 1340 on May 20, the rescue team assisted Stolpman down the West Buttress; the Mountain Trip party remained at 5300 meters. At 1800, Stolpman reached the HLRP where he showed dramatic improvement. Upon examination, Hackett felt that the airdrop of 02 had saved Stolpman’s life as his condition had been very serious.

On May 21, the Mountain Trip party descended to 4400 meters; they continued down, with Stolpman, to Kahiltna Base on May 22. Stolpman was able to descend without assistance. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


Dr. Peter Hackett’s opinion of the situation is that the critical period for most cerebral edema cases is overnight. Once cerebral edema victims begin to lose control, they deteriorate rapidly. The use of 02 with victims of cerebral edema can often make the difference that determines whether an evacuation is needed or not. In this situation, rapid ascent with an unknown party was also a factor. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park, and J. Williamson)