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Frostbite, Weather, Inadequate Clothing, Alaska McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 5, 1985, the Vail-Denali Expedition, led by Ted Billings, was shuttling loads to a high cache at 5550 meters on the Cox Comb. About 1400, strong winds began blowing. Ted Billings and Paul Kemp, the first rope team, were about 60 meters above the fixed line. They cached their packs, one of which contained their CB radio, behind some rocks and descended to assist the other members still on the fixed line.

The velocity of the winds increased, knocking people down, tearing out the fixed line, and causing the group to fall about 60 meters down the slope. One man was literally airborne from the gusts. Due to the intensity of the wind, the group was forced to dig in and bivouac where they landed. Greg Kemp (44), a member of the second rope team, spent the night with his feet braced in the show, his arm around his anchored ax, and his right hand clutching his rope. Kemp was wearing thinsulate-lined, leather-palmed, Gortex ski gloves. He said that his gloves usually became wet during the day, but that he dried them at night. His gloves were wet when the winds struck so he had no opportunity to change or dry them during the forced bivouac.

The winds had subsided by the next morning and the party regrouped to discover that Greg Kemp had suffered third degree frostbite distal from the second knuckle on the four fingers of his right hand and that two packs had been lost during the winds. (The two packs at the high cache were presumed to have endured the storm.)

The group descended to meet the Chicago Mountaineering Club, who were equipped with a radio-telephone. Billings then called Park Headquarters at 1130 to request an evacuation for Paul and Greg Kemp.

The party was told to move from the reporting elevation on Karsten’s Ridge down to 3250 meters on the Muldrow Glacier and prepare for a helicopter evacuation. An Alaska Helicopter Bell 205 with pilot John Hodges and Ranger Dave Litchte left Park Headquarters at at 1430. A K2 Aviation Cessna 1895 piloted by Jim Okonek flew lookout for the mission. The Kemps were picked up at 1630 and returned to Park Headquarters. The rescue was hampered by deteriorating weather conditions and turbulent mountain winds. (Source: Dave Lichte, Ranger, Denali National Park)


Frostbite of the hands is nearly always preventable, since the hands can easily be placed in the groin, axilla, or on the abdomen and kept warm in that way. Clothing in this case was inadequate. Mittens should always be available to change into if starting off with gloves. A prusik on the rope would have allowed him to take his hand off the rope and keep it warm. (Terminology for frostbite should be uniform, and described as superficial or deep; and thawed, partially-thawed, or still frozen.) In my opinion, frostbite of the fingertips is a non life-threatening condition and does not warrant an emergency helicopter evacuation. (Source: Dr. Peter Hackett, Denali Medical Research Group)