American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Acute Mountain Sickness, Ascending Too Fast, Climbing Alone, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989

ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS, ASCENDING TOO FAST, CLIMBING ALONE

Alaska, Mount McKinley

Sung Hyun Baek (29) flew in on May 5, 1988, to join the Korean Alpine Club expedition on a climb of the Cassin Ridge of Denali. The Korean Alpine Club expedition had flown in on April 28 and Baek was unable to catch up with them. He soloed the route to 5500 meters where he met members of the New York Alpine Club expedition (another Korean group).

At 2135 on May 26, the Talkeetna Ranger Station received a call for help. The reporting party spoke only Korean which complicated communication; the only English transmitted was, “Mayday, Mayday.” A Korean interpreter/climber was located in Talkeetna who said the climber had “high altitude sickness, frostbite on one leg and frostbite on the hands.” The victim was reportedly unable to use his hands and could not walk. The reporting party were two members of the New York Alpine Club expedition who had no rope and only one day of food left. Apparently Baek had reached the camp of the two highest members of the New York Alpine Club expedition but was unable to continue up or down.

Deteriorating weather hampered a reconnaissance flight that night by Jay Hudson in a Cessna 206. Though the western part of the mountain was clear, descending clouds on the Cassin prevented the plane from getting close to the route. Hudson flew at 0815 the next morning when the weather improved. A Korean interpreter, Seung Hwan Lee, and NPS Ranger Ralph Moore were on board. They determined the party’s location and told the group to move Baek to the southern end of the ridge just below their camp when the helicopter approached.

Elmendorf Air Force Base’s Rescue Coordination Center provided logistical support and coordinated the availability of the Chinook helicopters for this mission. Fortuitously, the Chinooks from the 242nd Aviation Company, Fort Wainwright, were in Talkeetna at the time to fly out a portion of the medical/rescue camp. Ranger Bob Seibert organized the rescue effort with Dr. Peter Hackett providing valuable medical assistance. A hook was lowered from the hovering Chinook with a sling and carabiner for Baek to clip into. He was raised 25 meters into the ship from the steep, exposed ridge at 1255 on May 27. Extra food and CB batteries were dropped on the hoist cable to the remaining two people. The helicopters returned to Talkeetna by 1345.

A neurosurgeon who had recendy been working at the medical/rescue camp examined Baek and found only the tips of two fingers to be grayish with no frostbite on the feet. There were minor indications that cerebral edema had been present, as residual effects are often still present immediately following such a rapid descent to sea level.

Through working together, this interagency effort accomplished the highest hoist rescue ever done by the U.S. military. The rescue was a smooth operation despite its decidedly dangerous location only because of perfect weather conditions and the fact that the group happened to be near one of only a few flat areas along the ridge where such a rescue could be performed. (Source: Ralph Moore, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

A solo attempt leaves little room for error. The urgency of this evacuation was questionable due to the minimal medical problems and the substantial risk and expense involved. Self-rescue is imperative unless it is truly a life-and-death situation. (Source: Ralph Moore, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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