HAPE, FROSTBITE, PARTY SEPARATED, INEXPERIENCE, WEATHER
Alaska, Mount McKinley
On June 10, 1990, at the top of the West Rib (5975 meters) on Mount McKinley, Miroaki Ito (38) died from pulmonary edema. Ito had been left here, since he was feeling poorly, while the other six members of the KTK expedition went for the summit. Upon descent from the summit, two members got lost in poor visibility and descended the popular West Buttress route to the NPS 4260 meter camp. The others remained at the 5975 meter camp in extreme wind and cold, with very little gear, in hopes of locating their two countrymen.
By morning on June 10, Ito was near death and three others were severely frostbitten. A ground team was organized along with air support to help rescue the KTK expedition. By late afternoon Ito had died, and the frostbitten members of the KTK expedition were being evacuated to the 4260 meter camp where their extremities were rewarmed.
On June 11, Kiyoteru Hashimoto (25), Shin Kashu (41), and Takashi Nishikawa (36) were air lifted by Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the NPS camp, as they were unable to walk due to the severity of their frostbite. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
The team set out on an apparently good day from 5500 meters and fixed rope to 5950 meters. Mr. Ito developed cough, a staggering walk and shortness of breath, which are obvious signs of severe altitude illness. One member of his group was an experienced Himalayan climber and it is hard to understand how he did not recognize the seriousness of Ito’s condition. At that point, descent would have been very easy on fixed lines and with good weather, and since they were only 450 vertical meters above their camp, it would have been a very rapid trip back to their high camp.
The decision to leave him because he was not feeling well and to continue on up to the summit is probably the single greatest cause of altitude deaths on mountaineering expeditions. A victim of altitude illness who cannot walk a straight line or appears to have pulmonary edema must never be left alone. The appropriate action is to descend immediately, and not to have the victim descend by himself.
The decision to not turn around on the ascent, and to bivouac at 5950 meters with an obviously very ill man may have been due, in part, to hypoxia. The fact that they couldn’t find the trail down the next day, nor drag him down across easy terrain because they were in such poor condition, points to incapacitation due to altitude, exhaustion and other environmental conditions.
In summary, this case illustrates the classic causes of death due to altitude illness: (1) lack of recognition that a person is seriously ill; (2) leaving a sick person behind while the rest of the group continues on; and (3) the deteriorating condition of an entire group of climbers under extreme conditions. (Source: Dr. Peter H. Hackett)