American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Hypothermia, Dehydration, Weather, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1995

HYPOTHERMIA, DEHYDRATION, WEATHER

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 18,1994, Paul Laeremans (39) and Ingrid Baeyens (38) of the German AMICAL expedition, along with other members of their expedition, began descending the West Buttress route from 14,300 feet. Weather conditions were poor, with high winds and sub-zero temperatures. As the group descended around Windy Corner at 13,300 feet, poor visibility and whiteout conditions developed.

At 1700 and 12,500 feet, the group was unable to continue and began digging a snow cave to provide shelter from the weather. Laeremans and Baeyens were extremely fatigued and cold, and got into their sleeping bags, which became wet from blowing and drifting snow. The remainder of the group continued digging through the night, finishing the snow cave by 1000 on May 19. By this time Laeremans and Baeyens were shivering and becoming hypothermic.

On May 19 at 1245, the AMICAL expedition contacted Kahiltna basecamp and reported two hypothermic persons and requested assistance. At 1530 NPS volunteers Colin Grissom and Craig Leuben descended from the NPS 14,300 foot camp to the AMICAL camp. At 1720 Grissom reported two hypothermic patients and requested a helicopter evacuation. The NPS LAMA helicopter was in the area working on another rescue mission. Laeremans and Baeyens were helicoptered out at 1742. At basecamp Laeremans and Baeyens were assessed by NPS volunteers Dr. John Mullen and Jon Tierney. They were mildly hypothermic and were rewarmed in the basecamp weatherport.

At 1807 Laeremans and Baeyens were flown to Talkeetna in a fixed wing aircraft by pilot Doug Geeting at their own expense. In Talkeetna, Laeremans and Baeyens were treated and released by Talkeetna Ambulance Service.

Analysis

The AMICAL expedition began an unauthorized commercially-guided expedition. The expeditions guide, Rainer Bolesch, was not permitted to enter Denali National Park. The remaining 14 members, all experienced mountaineers, continued with the climb. Laeremans and Baeyens both had extensive mountaineering experience in the Himalayas and the Alps. Whether or not the presence of the guide would have prevented the problems that the AMICAL expedition encountered is uncertain. Certainly, one guide has very limited effectiveness in managing activities and insuring safety in a group of 14 climbers in the Denali environment. The maximum client to guide ratio allowed for the authorized guided trips on Denali is four to one.

Laeremans and Baeyens reportedly did not eat and drink well for five days prior to this incident. An adequate high carbohydrate diet and high fluid intake are essential for combating the effects of severe cold and extreme weather on Denali.

The AMICAL expedition began their descent from 14,300 feet in very poor weather conditions. The Windy Corner area is notorious for its extreme conditions. It is advisable to wait for weather conditions to moderate before attempting to climb through this area of the route.

Fortunately, the group recognized the potentially serious condition of Laeremans and Baeyens, and took action to find shelter in a snow cave. (Source: Jim Phillips, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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