American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fatigue, Exposure, Party Separated, Fall on Snow, AMS, Dehydration, Inadequate Clothing, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 1992


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 14, 1991, four members of the Korean Blue Fire Expedition left their high camp at 18,200 feet at Denali Pass on the West Buttress route of Mount McKinley, enroute to the summit. Due to fatigue, AMS, and poor weather conditions, the climbers became separated on their descent. Il Soon Go (31), Jong Ho Ann (34), and Beom Kyou Lee (25) bivouacked in the open on the night of May 14. On May 15, frostbitten Ann fell 100 feet while descending to camp, sustaining a minor head injury. Go sustained frostbitten hands while descending to camp. Meanwhile, Lee and Jun Chan Park, who had been waiting at Denali Pass, fell approximately 500 feet while attempting to descend to the 17,200 foot camp to obtain food and assistance. Park sustained a fractured thoracic vertebrae and Lee a cervical strain. On May 16, mountaineering rangers and the NPS Lama helicopter evacuated Ann and Go from Denali Pass, and Lee and Park from 17,200 feet.


Many physical factors appear to have contributed to the rescue of, and the injuries sustained by, the Korean Blue Fire Expedition. Several other expeditions witnessed the Koreans lower on the West Buttress, and in all cases they were described as appearing extremely exhausted and in very poor condition. The Koreans climbed for very long days and maintained a very slow pace. However, it appears that they spent an insufficient amount of time acclimating at the higher altitudes. After camping one night at 17,200 feet, they moved camp to Denali Pass at 18,200 feet. Most expeditions make their high camp at the 17,200 foot level. Camping at Denali Pass is marginal at best. Members of the expedition were undoubtedly suffering from some degree of Acute Mountain Sickness and dehydration, which contributed to their problems. It is also believed that they had only gloves and not mittens, which contributed to the cold injuries sustained.

Of equal or greater significance were the mental attitudes of the climbers. This group was willing to risk life and limb in order to make it to the summit of Mount McKinley. The group had failed in an attempt to climb the mountain in a prior year. It was stated that this year they were going to reach the summit at all costs. (Source: Jim Phillips, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Medical Analysis

The oxygen tension of the air at Denali Pass is equivalent to 19,000 feet or higher in the Himalaya. This is because the barometric pressure is lower at a high altitude near the poles than it is at the same altitude nearer the equator. (See Terris Moore, American Alpine Journal, 1968.) Adequate time for acclimatization between 14,000 and 18,000 feet was not accomplished, and the expedition would have been much safer sleeping no higher than the 17,200 foot camp. It is during sleep that hypoxic stress is greatest, and therefore the sleeping altitude is the critical factor in acclimatization. Although dehydration does not cause mountain sickness, it decreases physical performance and the ability to generate heat from muscles, contributing to fatigue as well as hypothermia and frostbite. (Source: Dr. Peter Hackett)

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