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Inadequate Equipment, Fall on Snow, Acute Mountain Sickness — Alaska, Mount McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 15, 1984, the six man Tegernseer Denali Expedition from West Germany flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to begin their climb of the West Buttress route of Mount McKinley. Four days later they reached 4350 meters, and on

May 21, the party arrived at 5250 meters. One of the members, Franz Buchberger (age unknown) developed a severe bifrontal headache. He was assisted back down to 4350 meters by the party. On May 22, Buchberger’s symptoms were resolved and it was recommended that he wait at least one more day before attempting the summit.

On May 23, Buchberger said that he climbed from 4350 meters to the summit in five hours. It is not known whether Buchberger suffered AMS this day, although it is likely, given his prior headache problem. During the descent, at 5650 meters, Buchberger said that his Salewa crampon came off. He slid 14 meters, hit some rocks and stopped. He did not carry an ice ax and whether he was roped or not is unknown, although it was unlikely. He walked down to 5250 meters with considerable pain and difficulty.

On May 24, Buchberger was assisted down to the 4350 meter National Park Service medical facility. Because of lumbar-sacral pain, and tenderness in both the uper abdomen and three ribs, Dr. Fred Ziel, a passing climber, suspected internal injuries. Intravenous fluids were administered, while Ranger Jon Waterman contacted Lowell Thomas of Talkeetna Air Taxi. At 1945 that evening, Thomas landed and flew Buchberger and a frostbitten climber, Doug Hansen, to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


If Buchberger had carried an ice ax, he would have had the ability to prevent the fall or to self—arrest in case of a fall.

Climbing to the summit from 4350 meters has been done a number of times, but this long day can exhaust people and predispose them to AMS, slips, or errors in judgment. The victim’s initial bout with AMS was probably due to a faster than normal ascent rate. Since Buchberger had never been above 4300 meters, he could have adopted a more conservative rate of ascent, until he was a better judge of his ability to acclimate.

Seasoned climbers and guides on Denali practice the use of ice axes and proper rope work, which Gloggner, as the leader (or guide) did not employ. (Gloggner was the leader of a party in 1976 on Mount McKinley that had two members afflicted with pulmonary edema, probably due to rapid ascent rates.)

While Ranger Waterman escorted Buchberger down from the base of the fixed rope, he stopped to talk to a party of three German mountaineers, atempting the summit from 4350 meters. Waterman asked them why they were not carrying ice axes. They replied, “Our leader says an ax is not necessary.” (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)