EXPOSURE, WEATHER, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT
Alaska, Mount McKinley
Late on July 3, 1991, Polish climber Krzysztof Wiecha (28) began climbing alone to the summit of Mount McKinley from the 17,200 foot camp on the West Buttress route. As Wiecha approached the summit from the 19,500 foot area, the weather rapidly deteriorated with clouds, snow, high winds, and visibility near zero. Wiecha became disoriented, and by early on July 4, decided to seek shelter in a small snow cave that he dug near 20,000 feet. He carried no bivouac or survival gear. At 0700, Wiecha was reported as overdue to NPS mountaineering rangers. The weather remained extremely poor on July 4 and 5, with heavysnowfall, high winds, and high avalanche hazard prohibiting any air and ground search attempts. Meanwhile, Wiecha wandered around near the summit attempting to find the descent route, taking shelter in several different locations. He began to suffer severely from the cold, altitude, dehydration, and exhaustion. By midday on July 6, the weather began to clear, and an air search was begun. Miraculously, Wiecha was spotted crawling from a crevasse just below the summit at 19,800 feet. The NPS Lama helicopter was dispatched from Talkeetna, and two mountaineering rangers were flown to the “Football Field” at 19,500 feet. Rangers climbed to Wiecha, who was coherent but could barely move due to exhaustion and severely frostbitten feet. He was lowered approximately 900 feet to the Football Field, where the Lama helicopter once again landed, and flew Wiecha off the mountain early on July 7. Both of Wiecha’s severely frostbitten feet were amputated. (Source: Jim Phillips, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
Rapid changes in the weather are common on Mount McKinley. It is important to monitor weather patterns and to be willing to make the decision to abort a summit attempt. It seems that Mr. Wiecha did keep track of the weather situation but was still caught by a sudden change in the weather.
Mr. Wiecha demonstrated an incredible will to survive. The frostbite of his feet may have been prevented by having some basic survival equipment with him during his summit attempt. A stove, pot, fuel, some type of shelter and extra food should be carried during a summit attempt. (Source: Ronald Johnson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)