EXPOSURE, FROSTBITE, FATIGUE, WEATHER, LOSS OF TENT CONTAINING FOOD, FUEL, CLOTHING, EQUIPMENT
Alaska, Mount McKinley
On April 22, 1992, the three member Korean “Pohang” party flew in to climb the Cassin Ridge on Mount McKinley. On May 4 they started the route at the base of the Japanese Couloir with 15 days of food. By May 9 they had reached their high camp at 17,700 feet. Their plans were to make a summit attempt the next day but strong winds were encountered forcing the three to begin construction of a snow cave. While working on the cave, they had their tent blow away which contained most of their food, fuel, and some clothing and climbing equipment.
The three were determined to ration what food and fuel they had left in order to wait out the weather. For over a week they were sustained on half a cup of rice powder and one quart of water per person per day. At some point while enlarging the snow cave they found some cached fuel which bolstered their supply. The weather finally improved enough on May 16 that the trio decided to make a summit push. The three only managed to ascend 30 meters before realizing they were too weak to continue in the cold, windy conditions. Upon returning to the cave, the leader Hyun Doo Kang (26) found he had frostbite on at least four fingers. They realized that they were too week to go up or down and thought seriously of requesting a rescue.
On May 16, the NPS Lama helicopter was involved in search efforts for two Italian climbers lost on the Cassin. At 1700, while Doug Geeting was making a fly over of the Cassin, he heard the distress call, “Helicopter, helicopter, helicopter.” Geeting informed NPS Talkeetna of the distress calls, who in turn informed the Kahiltna basecamp operator Annie Duquette. At 1835, Duquette confirmed that the calls were coming from the ’92 Korea Pohang party, who were at the 17,700 foot level on the Cassin. They reported that they had been without food for five days, their leader had AMS, four frostbitten fingers and was too weak to go up or down.
Weather on the 17th remained poor and continued poor until noon on the 18th, when Ranger Roger Robinson, flying with Doug Geeting, began orbiting the South Face where the Koreans were located. The NPS Lama arrived at the Korean location at 1400 where it encountered down drafts preventing a possible air drop of food and fuel. At 1610, the NPS Lama with Ranger Jim Phillips and pilot Bill Ramsey departed the Kahiltna airstrip for the Cassin. This time they encountered very little wind, and at 1620 an airdrop was attempted, but the cargo tumbled down the South Face. At 1630, Ramsey determined there was adequate room for landing, setting down at the 17,700 foot location about 50 feet down the slope from their snow cave. All three began to descend toward the helicopter from the uphill position, placing them in jeopardy of walking into the rotor blades. The helicopter had to lift off where Phillips was able to indicate a proper approach for one person at a time, picking up Kang first. The other members, Jae Chul Kim and Bong Gyoo Jun were picked up on subsequent landings, all being transported to the 14,200 foot Ranger Station on the West Buttress. At 1729 all three Koreans were picked up by the Army’s Chinook helicopter at the 14,200 foot camp and transported straight to Humana Hospital in Anchorage.
Kang had frostbite to all ten fingers and three toes. The other members, Jun and Kim, received minor frostbite on several of their toes.
In the weather conditions encountered, it is important to remember to collapse one s tent before leaving it to dig a snow cave. The subsequent loss of food and fuel in this case created a very serious dilemma. The three had indicated they would have tried to go either up or down if they could have received the air drop. Considering Kangs condition, this would have been very difficult.
During the rescue, their approach from the uphill side of the helicopter could have been fatal. Before approaching a helicopter, make sure the pilot has given the okay to proceed toward the ship. Never approach or exit a helicopter from the uphill side. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)