Acute Mountain Sickness, Ascending Too Fast, Fatigue, Weather, Miscommunication, Inadequate Equipment
Alaska, Mt. McKinley
On June 5,1986, a seven member Korean-American Expedition flew into the Kahiltna Glacier to climb the Cassin Ridge. The party planned on separating into three groups with a party of two and three attempting the Cassin while two remained at a 3075 meter base camp in communication with the lead pair. On June 13, Lee Jong Kwan (29) and Chung Seoung Kwon (27) began a rapid ascent of the Cassin with six days of food. They moved fast, placing camps at 4300 meters, 4550 meters, 5060 meters, and arriving at their 6050 meter high camp on the afternoon of June 16. Both had read about McKinley’s notorious weather and wanted to climb fast without getting caught. Kwan experienced a slight headache at 5060 meters, but with their move to 6050 meters, it became very serious overnight. In radio contact with their base camp, leader Park Jae Hoon (31) recommended that both take a rest on June 17 to acclimatize better, as they were also both exhausted from their rapid pace.
On June 18, Kwan and Kwon packed up camp and intended to ascend the remaining section on the route. Kwan felt very weak and was extremely ataxic (symptoms of cerebral edema). Kwon made an attempt, but made only the first 100 meters before coming back. Several other critical factors came into reality at this time. On the 17th, their only stove (MSR) quit working and on the 18th they ran out of food. A descent was considered, but it was felt that a 50 meter rope would not be adequate. They had failed to bring a second line for rappels. The weather also became poor with snow, 20 knot winds and colder temperatures (-30°C). Kwon gave the ridge one more try before realizing that he too was very weak and unable to ascend. Their last hope lay with assistance from their fellow members who were ascending below them. Unaware of each other’s progress, the three below were making steady progress when at 1700 on June 18 they lost a rucksack containing many essential items, including a stove, sleeping bag and tent. They had unfortunately clipped their rucksack to an old fixed line which failed. The three were forced to bivouac at 5830 meters in stormy conditions. They experienced a cold, miserable night, forcing them to descend the next day.
Beginning at 1000 on June 19, Kwan and Kwon began broadcasting their need for help saying, “1986 Korean Expedition SOS.” Due to their elevation a number of people could hear the broadcast, including the Talkeetna Ranger Station. Rangers Roger Robinson and Scott Gill could hear the transmission but were unable to decipher what they were saying. Kahiltna base camp operator Mary Palmer made contact with the pair and felt that they were okay by the way they responded with an occasional “okay.” It was assumed that whatever message the Koreans wished passed along had been taken care of through Palmer and her attempts to communicate. No other broadcasts were heard from the Koreans that day.
On June 20, Kwan and Kwon realized that there had been no rescue attempts and the weather had been excellent. At 0900 the Koreans frantically began calling Talkeetna and talked with Cliff Hudson, who was their pilot. Their transmission was strong but there was such a language barrier that it was impossible to understand the Korean party. The Koreans kept calling every hour until their batteries slowly started to die. Rangers Robinson and Gill taped the conversation off the CB and played it to the Korean consulate in Anchorage. The consulate was unable to understand the recordings since Kwon was trying to speak in English instead of Korean. Finally, at 1330, one member of the consulate thought that the pair were requesting doctors.
With the urgency of the radio chatter from the Koreans and the slight translations of the recordings, the NPS contacted pilot Lowell Thomas from Talkeetna Air Taxi. Thomas and a Korean interpreter, Mr. Park, were to fly the upper part of the Cassin in order to find out the seriousness of their situation. The weather postponed an immediate flight.
At 1825, Thomas and Park were flying on the Cassin and trying to communicate with the Korean party. Mr. Park was unsuccessful in establishing radio contact (due to the batteries in the Koreans’ radio being dead) and there was no visual contact made due to the now deteriorating weather conditions high on the mountain. During the flight, Palmer at base camp kept hearing clicks on the radio which could have been the Koreans trying to talk. Thomas and Park returned to Talkeetna for a briefing.
Mo Anthoine from the six-member British expedition had just gotten off the Cassin Ridge. Anthoine told the rangers that on June 16 they had seen the two Koreans at 6050 meters, camped only 200 meters from the summit ridge. Anthoine thought it was a strange place to camp, but the pair looked in good shape even though one did mention that he did have a slight headache.
Mr. Park listened to the tape recordings of the Koreans many times in the Talkeetna Ranger Station before confirming that Kwon and Kwan were saying “SOS” and requesting help.
Earlier that day, Robinson and Gill had researched the options of a rescue at that altitude. There was no aircraft available in Alaska that could land at 6050 meters. The only option would be to organize an acclimated ground team to pull the Koreans up and over the summit ridge and then down the West Buttress to 5275 meters where they could be picked up in a helicopter.
At 2130 the two Koreans who were at the 3065 meter base camp arrived at the 2150 meter Kahiltna base camp. Mr. Park talked to the pair via radio telephone and got specific details on the seriousness of Kwan and Kwon’s condition. At the same time, an acclimatized ground team was organized in Talkeetna with the intentions of being flown up to 4350 meters and being shuttled in pairs to 5275 meters. Gary Scott (an NPS volunteer) had just spent five weeks being base camp manager at the 4350 meter medical/rescue camp and was well acclimatized. Scott would be the leader of the ground team. Other members included Wolfgang Wippler and Arthur Horied from an Austrian group who had volunteered the night before to help. Both Wippler and Horied had gotten only two hours of sleep, but were more than willing to help. They had just gotten down from McKinley after doing a traverse and were acclimatized. Vern Tejas, a Genet guide, and Peter Downing would be picked up at Kahiltna Base Camp.
On June 21 at 0615, ERA pilot Ron Smith left Talkeetna with Scott, Wippler, and Horied on board the Bell 212. This departure time was about one and a half hours late due to last minute changes in personnel. Once in the air the weather cleared up at basecamp and Smith was able to pick up Tejas and Downing by 0650. Smith dropped Wippler, Downing and Horied off at the 4350 meter medical/rescue camp while Scott and Tejas tried to airdrop a cache at 5980 meters on the West Buttress and identify the location of the Koreans. The weather was now starting to deteriorate and Smith was unable to climb much higher than 5675 meters due to down drafts. Smith returned to 4350 meters to drop Tejas off in order to shuttle climbers to the 5275 meter camp. By now the weather had become windy and impossible to drop rescuers off at that camp. Everyone was dropped off at the 4350 meter medical/rescue camp with Smith and the Bell 212 helicopter returning to Talkeetna.
At 0800 hours Ranger Ralph Moore and SCA volunteers Mark Stasik and Misha Kirk were staffing the medical/rescue camp. The trio had just arrived three days before and were not very acclimatized. A new strategy was discussed and it was decided that Scott, Wippler, and Tejas would travel extremely fast and light in order to get the Koreans and bring them up and over the summit ridge and down the West Buttress. Everyone else would act in support of the advance team by carrying needed equipment to the 5275 meter high camp and help bring the Koreans down from Denali Pass.
At 0900, the advance team left the medical/rescue camp. Horied felt quite ill due to the altitude and lack of sleep. Horied remained at camp on oxygen and did not continue on. Moore and the support team, consisting of Stasik, Downing, and half a dozen volunteers, started up about 1000. Kirk stayed at the medical/rescue camp to provide communication and support.
Once at 5275 meters, Tejas and Wippler picked up the 200 meter rescue rope and oxygen bottle with regulator out of the NPS rescue cache. Scott now felt tired and a little ataxic. After resting a few hours, Scott went down with two Japanese climbers. Tejas talked to Gary Bocarde, who was guiding a Mountain Trip expedition which planned to do a traverse. Bocarde was in the process of moving his expedition to 5580 meters to set up camp. Tejas was assured by Bocarde that the camp at 5580 meters would be of great support if they needed help.
Tejas and Wippler climbed to Denali Pass, where Wippler said that he needed some sleep. He assured Tejas that he would sleep two or three hours and then continue. Wippler climbed into one of Bocarde’s tents, leaving Tejas solo.
Moore and the support group were having problems of their own as volunteers would slowly drop out of hauling equipment due to altitude. Equipment would have to be redistributed as climbers turned back. At 1730, the support team of Moore, Stasik, Downing, and two Japanese climbers arrived at the 5275 meter camp. At 1830, Kirk talked to Tejas via radio from 5920 meters. The weather was 10-15 knot winds with clouds.
Once on the summit ridge, Tejas looked down the Cassin Ridge and began yodeling and yelling. He heard a faint response and anchored the 200 meter rescue rope and
descended toward the voices. The rope was about 50 meters short of the Koreans’ camp, so Tejas down climbed to the tent. At the tent Tejas found Kwon and Kwan awake, oriented, hungry and very thirsty. He gave them a little water and a small amount of food. He reassured the pair and got them organized to climb to the summit ridge. Kwan was staggering quite a lot, but with Tejas’ help was able to climb up with Kwon holding the bottom of the rope. Kwon then started climbing the rope while dragging Kwan’s pack.
At 2110, Tejas called basecamp via CB radio from the Korean camp to let Palmer know that the Koreans were alive and that he was heading up and over. Pilot Thomas was contracted to fly the upper elevations of Mount McKinley in order to supply communication to ground personnel and air drop needed equipment. South District Ranger Bob Seibert and Thomas took off from Talkeetna at 2240.
Once on the summit ridge, Kwan collapsed and went into a coma. With Kwan lying in the snow and Kwon still out of sight on the Cassin Ridge at 6165 meters, Tejas truly became aware of the desperation of the situation. Looking down the West Buttress, Tejas saw Wippler 20 meters from the summit ridge. Wippler had brought the oxygen up and they administered it to Kwan in hopes that it would bring him around. Tejas had also given Kwan 10 mg of decadron at the Korean camp. The oxygen did not seem to work, so Tejas and Wippler loaded Kwan in a plastic sled and slowly started to haul him down the West Buttress. Before Tejas headed down, he noticed Thomas’ airplane flying overhead in deteriorating weather conditions. Seibert told Tejas via CB radio that there were seven people at 5920 meters on their way up. Communication was very difficult and the weather was such that Thomas was barely able to fly. Tejas felt that he did not need any equipment dropped and would start heading down. After talking to Tejas, the weather closed in, making it impossible to drop needed supplies at 5275 meters, so the plane returned to Talkeetna.
Tejas and Wippler started heading down dragging Kwan while Kwon stumbled behind under his own power. Once at 5980 meters, Tejas ran into the seven members of the NOLS expedition, and although they offered to help, Tejas felt they could get down on their own. Once at 5580 meters, Tejas and Wippler left the two Koreans for Bocarde’s expedition to look after and quickly descended to high camp.
After two more days of difficult lowering and hauling, Kwan was picked up at the 5275 meter level, and Kwon was picked up at the medical/research camp. They were flown to Providence Hospital. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
Once again altitude takes its toll on climbers going too fast. Climbers should acclimatize first on the West Buttress before trying an alpine ascent with only six days of food. Once the symptoms of AMS were present, the pair should have either descended or at least not gone any higher. Camping at 6050 meters is difficult. One is constantly deteriorating and can never regain full strength.
These climbers also felt that by calling for a rescue, a helicopter would come and pick them up off the Cassin Ridge. The information that they received about rescues was not understood due to a language barrier. They had no idea of what was to be involved in saving their lives. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
(Editor’s Note: It was a bad year again for foreign climbers on Mount McKinley. In addition to the accidents reported here, a Romanian, a German, and Japanese had to be evacuated by aircraft. The Japanese climber lost all ten toes to frostbite.)