American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Pulmonary Edema, Party Separated and Fall on Snow, Inexperience, Alaska, Mount McKinley

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



Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 25, 1983, Mikio Yamakami (30), Nobuyoshi Chiba (27), Masato Watanabe (27), Yutaka Asakura and Yoko Shimizu were flown onto the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to climb the West Buttress route of Mount McKinley. They reached 1250 meters in ten days (a slower than average rate which should allow for adequate acclimatization), and on June 4, the leader, Mikio Yamakami, contracted HAPE and spent the night in the High Latitude Medical Research Group (HLMRG) tent on oxygen. On June 5 he descended to 3300 meters with the understanding that he would continue descending if he did not recover. On June 7, Yamakami continued to the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna.

Meanwhile, the remaining four members continued their climb and arrived at 5150 meters on June 9. On June 10, at 1200, Chiba and Watanabe started up the direct West Buttress route. At 1735 they radioed Kahiltna Base that they had fallen 70 meters and were at 5700 meters with a broken leg and a broken arm. They requested a rescue. At 1830 Brian Okonek and Dr. Peter Hackett (HLMRG) left from 4250 meters to assist. At 2230, Okonek, Hackett, Jon Waterman, Jeff Rhoades and Ed Anderson left from 5150 meters to rescue the Japanese. The group found the Japanese at 2400. Most of the rescuers were cold. The temperature was — 28°C, with mild wind and poor visibility. The Japanese were in stable condition. Watanabe was accompanied down on the end of a rope team with Rhoades and Anderson. He had no serious injuries.

Chiba’s leg was splinted and he was placed inside a haul bag, with a sleeping bag and ensolite pads. At 0045, Hackett accompanied Chiba down, while Okonek and Waterman belayed the ropes. After four separate lowers, on 10 meters of 1.5 cm polypropelene, Chiba was dragged across the flat 5100-meter plateau, arriving at the 5200-meter camp at 0600. The rescuers were exhausted and slept until 1330. At 1430, Hackett determined that Watanabe had a slight chest contusion and could walk down the mountain. Chiba, however, had sustained an “avulsion fracture” of the left femur and could not walk. Hackett and Okonek returned to the 4300-meter camp while Waterman rested and considered the options of a helicopter evacuation from 5200 meters or another rope lower from 5100 to 4300 meters. Most of the rescuers were either sick or very tired from this rescue and/or the rescue of Rolf Graage the previous day.

At 0900 on June 12, Waterman found three volunteers who had the time and energy to perform a safe lowering evacuation. At 1000, Waterman, Paul Spanjer, Kevin Slater and Dave Wood began setting up the lowering site at the top of the rescue gully. At 1130, Spanjer accompanied Chiba down to 4650 meters and met Okonek, Rob Roach, Ralph Bovard and Jeanette Harris, all from the HLMRG. In turn, the four-person group lowered Chiba from 4650 meters to 4300 meters while Spanjer returned to 5200 meters. At 1630 Chiba arrived at 4300 meters.

On June 13, at 0840, Lowell Thomas landed his Helio-Courier at 4300 meters and evacuated Chiba to Talkeetna. (Source: Jonathan Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


This was a relatively inexperienced group, which was a major factor in the ensuing accident. The leader was separated from the team, which weakened the group. Chiba and Watanabe’s route selection up the direct West Buttress, rather than by way of Denali Pass, was too steep for their level of experience. Hackett, Okonek and Waterman agreed that with more experience, Watanabe could have assisted Chiba down because their injuries were so slight. As in similar accidents, the altitude probably predisposed Chiba and Watanabe to the fall, then compounded their ability and/or will to evacuate themselves. Available rescue personnel and mild weather were helpful factors for this party. (Source: Jonathan Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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