American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

AMS, Inability to Communicate, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On June 21, 1991, Japanese climbers Hiroshi Sakurai (28) and Hiroshi Urayama (34) arrived at 15,500 feet on the Haston-Scott route on the south face of Mount McKinley.

The pair had ascended 3,500 feet from the bottom of the face that day. Urayama was struck with severe Acute Mountain Sickness and felt he should be rescued. That evening, the pair began calling “May Day” on their CB radio. The NPS responded with a search plane attempting to locate the “May Day” calls. Numerous contacts were made with many climbers including the Japanese, but due to a communication barrier, the two remained unidentified. “May Day” calls were again reported on June 22, and the NPS Lama helicopter began to search. Again the two Japanese were not identified. Urayama decided that he wasn’t going to be rescued, so the pair began ascending the route very rapidly, summiting early the next morning. They then descended and reported to the NPS ranger camp at 14,200 feet that they were the ones calling “May Day.” With this information, the search was called off.


This type of communication problem occurs frequently on mountains such as Denali that draw a large international audience. Hand signals may have been a clearer way of indicating the party’s intentions. Two hands raised is the universal sign indicating an evacuation is needed.

Our main concern rests with the question: When should someone call for a rescue? (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Medical Analysis

In retrospect, Urayama probably did not have severe acute mountain sickness, or he would not have been able to make the rapid ascent over the top and the descent down to the 14,000 foot level. On the other hand, his decision to go up and over without delay was a good one, since rescue did not seem possible, and they could not safely descend. In situations such as this, the medication dexamethasone may dramatically abort progression of acute mountain sickness. Climbers on the mountain sleeping above 10,000 or 12,000 feet should have dexamethasone in their packs. Unfortunately, the medication is of no value for pulmonary edema. (Source: Dr. Peter Hackett)

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