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Slip on Snow, Descending Unroped, Pulmonary Edema, Inexperience, Alaska, Mount McKinley

SLIP ON SNOW, DESCENDING UNROPED, PULMONARY EDEMA, INEXPERIENCE

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On July 10, 1983, the nine-person Republic of China–Taiwan expedition flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on Mount McKinley. The expedition planned on climbing the West Buttress route.

By July 23, the group had climbed to the 5150-meter level on the West Buttress. On July 25, the climbing leader, Liao Kun-Shan (27), and Sun Tz-Chuan went for the summit. At 1900 they reached the 5850-meter level, but due to altitude illness, both decided to descend. They were unroped on the descent, and at 5550 meters Liao fell about 100 meters on a steep section of hard snow. He fell hard on his right side and it took a while before he regained his balance and continued down under his own power. By 2300 Liao got back to the 5850-meter camp and complained of upper chest pain on his right side. The group rested on July 26 and monitored Liao. As the day progressed, he started having more chest pain, breathing problems, and weakness, and he was unable to hold food or fluids down. The group noticed he was not improving, but felt they were too inexperienced to help him down to a lower elevation.

By July 27, Liao had developed a dry cough, was extremely fatigued and unable to walk. At 1200 Peter Hao-tsu Chin (the only member who spoke English) called Kahiltna Base Camp via CB radio. He requested a helicopter for a member who was in bad shape with broken ribs. (Due to poor communications, the message was received as “a broken leg.”)

Mountaineering Ranger Scott Gill was immediately informed; he then communicated with Kitty Banner of K2 Aviation, who was in the air on a scenic flight andable to make radio contact with the party. The group stressed to Banner that they were unable to get down on their own and needed a helicopter.

Lowell Thomas of Talkeetna Air Taxi and Ron Smith of ERA Helicopters were contacted and met in Talkeetna by 1430 on July 27. Once in Talkeetna, Thomas left at 1500 to fly cover, while Gill and Smith left at 1515 in the Bell 212. The 5150- meter camp was in and out of clouds, and after many overflights, Smith finally set the helicopter down right above the camp at 1620. He took off for Talkeetna at 1630 with Gill and Liao. Liao was complaining of chest pain on his right side and was able to walk at 5150 meters. Once on O2 in the helicopter, he felt much better and was totally ambulatory by the time the helicopter landed in Talkeetna. He was taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where he was diagnosed as having pulmonary edema and some bruised ribs. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

Liao’s fall and subsequent chest injury could have weakened his physical state and made him slightly more vulnerable to pulmonary edema. As his condition deteriorated, it would have been ideal to descend to the 4300-meter camp. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)