American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Frostbite, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984


Alaska, Mount McKinley

Claudia Berryman was a member of the guided eight-member Fantasy Ridge expedition to the West Rib of Mount McKinley. The expedition was guided by Michael Covington, who is the director.

The expedition flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on May 1, 1983. They moved rapidly up to the West Rib, reaching their high camp at 4920 meters on May 14. Here they waited for the ideal day to go to the summit.

On May 19, the wind started to increase, and Covington told the clients to start bracing the tents. At 0200 on May 20, Berryman and her two tentmates put on their clothes and had to brace the tent constantly. Berryman put on one pair of socks and her Koflach boots (thinsulate liners) but did not put on her overboots. The group held the tent up in winds estimated at 140 knots. After some time, Berryman’s feet got very cold and needed to be warmed by a tentmate, but there was no sign of frostbite. Around 1200, the tent collapsed and Berryman moved into Covington’s tent where her feet were once again rewarmed. There was still no sign of frostbite.

At 1800 the winds decreased and everyone started packing up to descend to 4300 meters on the West Buttress. By 1900, the group started down in strong winds.

Berryman complained of cold feet before descending, but they were feeling better as she went down. The expedition reached 4300 meters that evening, and the following morning Berryman went over to the High Latitude Medical Research Group.

Dr. Peter Hackett looked at Berryman’s feet and diagnosed frostbite. He discussed the injury with Dr. Mills at Providence Hospital in Anchorage and then thawed both feet with little discomfort. Both doctors felt the frostbite was bad enough to warrant an air evacuation. Covington was convinced by Hackett to have Berryman flown out, so he contacted Lowell Thomas of Talkeetna Air Taxi. Thomas was scheduled to make the pickup in his Helio-Courier, but weather conditions prevented him from landing on May 21 or 22.

On May 22, pilot Jim Porter from Evergreen Helicopters and Mountaineering Ranger Jon Waterman were flying in an Alouette III to rescue Niklaus Lotscher, who was in critical condition at 5200 meters on the West Buttress. At 2045 Porter and Waterman were in the air and attempted the 5200-meter pickup. After the pickup failed due to downdrafts, the camp at 4300 meters was contacted to get Berryman and another climber, Evelyn Lees (see previous report), prepared for an air evacuation. Porter landed at the 4300-meter camp at 2215 and flew both of them to Talkeetna. During the flight the helicopter had to fly above the cloud ceiling and drop down in a brief opening. The excess flying prompted a forced landing on the George Parks Highway just south of the Chulitna River bridge. Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi landed his Cessna 185 on the highway in order to refuel the Alouette III. From here Porter continued on to Talkeetna. Both climbers were eventually taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage and Berryman was released in a few days with superficial frostbite. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


The helicopter pilot felt that the pickup at 4300 meters was extremely hazardous due to poor lighting conditions. This, plus the emergency landing on the road, reinforces the fact that helicopter rescues in the Alaska Range can be extremely hazardous for rescuers and victims. Helicopter rescues should never be taken lightly and only be used when all other safe options fail.

Safety is always the important factor in rescues. In this particular case, a dangerous helicopter rescue was made for a nonemergency. The weather was the major factor. It could have been waited out, enabling Thomas to come in with a fixed wing aircraft. But it is also possible that Berryman could have been evacuated to the Kahiltna Base Camp on the ground. Covington’s group was very capable and willing to get their member down. The frostbite proved ultimately to be superficial, although at the time of the original observation, it was difficult to diagnose. The convenience of the air strip at 4300 meters may be causing unnecessary evacuations. Another important factor is the liability a guide may incur when deciding to take a client down after a doctor has advised a different method, such as being flown out.

Berryman’s last meal and water intake was around 1700 on May 19. The lack of fluids, food and overboots contributed to her frostbite. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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