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Frostbite, Failure to Rewarm Extremities


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 23, 1984, Doug Hansen (age unknown) reached the summit via Mount McKinley’s West Buttress. During the ascent, Hansen’s feet were numb, but he did not stop to rewarm them. On his return from the summit, he noticed that three of his toes had turned black with frostbite.

The party descended to 4350 meters on May 24, and consulted with National Park Service Ranger Jon Waterman about Hansen’s frostbite. Because another more seriously injured climber (Franz Buchberger) was being evacuated, Waterman suggested that Hansen join the flight to seek immediate medical treatment. Otherwise, Hansen would have walked out.

At 1945, Lowell Thomas of Talkeetna Air Taxi flew Hansen and Buchberger to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. Hansen was released on May 26,having only minor frostbite. He was billed for the cost of his evacuation by Talkeetna Air Taxi. (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


Frostbite remains as the most frequent mishap, affecting 5-10 percent of the climbers on McKinley each year. This year, frostbite was reported by 32 climbers, representing 5 percent of the 695 climbers on the mountain in 1984. (While acute mountain sickness exceeded this number, over half the cases were mild—52 out of 77).

Clients (or climbers inexperienced with sub—zero cold) have to be aware of body maintenance subtlties such as: non-constricting footwear, rehydration, and warming techniques. Climbers (particularly guides in charge of clients) must anticipate the surmountable inconvenience and potentail ego hang—ups involved in halting a summit push so members can warm their feet on others’ stomachs. Unattended “numb toes” is usually an invitation to frostbite. (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)