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Frostbite, Exposure, Weather, Inadequate Clothing and Equipment, Alaska, Mount McKinley



Alaska, Mount McKinley

Victor Pomerantsev (52) departed June 12,1994, for a solo climb of the West Buttress of Mount McKinley. He climbed quickly, arriving at the 16,200 foot level on June 15.

Pomerantsev ascended carrying equipment not adequate for the climb including a large cotton sleeping bag, a small two-pole pup tent and light nylon hiking boots. Instead of bringing an ice axe, he brought ski poles. While checking in at the Talkeetna Ranger Station, Pomerantsev indicated to Ranger Daryl Miller that he had adequate gear. Pomerantsev was from the Ukraine, but is now living in the United States. He could understand English and indicated that he had received and read our booklet, Mountaineering. On May 16, only four days out of basecamp, he was observed at 16,200 feet cooking in his tent at noon by Park volunteers. They informed Pomerantsev that there was an impending storm that could last several days. They noted how the tent was buried by snow from a storm the night before. Later that evening, John Grieve and Bill Ross of the “Colorado 2” expedition set up camp at 16,200 feet. They noticed the mostly buried pup tent, thinking it was a cache and not realizing that there was someone there.

Snow and strong winds began over the night and continued on the 17th. At 0830, Ross was shoveling snow from around their tent when he noticed the small pup tent was completely buried. As Ross more closely observed the tent site, he discovered a hand sticking out of the snow where a sleeping bag was buried 10 feet beyond the tent. Ross uncovered Pomerantsev finding him alive with a low level of consciousness. Ross and Grieve brought him to their tent. Pomerantsev spoke Russian, so his mental state was difficult to determine. Pomerantsev was completely soaked and had an oral temperature of 88° F. His clothes were removed and Grieve laid with Pomerantsev providing external warmth for most of the day. Pomerantsev began to shiver almost immediately. At 1020, the “Colorado 2” party called on their CB ratio to the 14,200 foot Ranger Station to inform them of the situation. Due to snow and high winds, no rescue attempt could be made. By the afternoon Pomerantsev was stable and speaking some English. It was observed that Pomerantsev had frostbitten all ten fingers. He was beginning to experience a lot of pain and blistering in his fingers once they thawed. “Colorado 2” used up their bandaging material and pain medicine in treating Pomerantsev by the end of the second day.

Stormy weather persisted until the evening of May 21. Ranger Robinson decided to have the NPS LAMA helicopter attempt a pick up at 16,400 feet on May 22, but due to an inadequate landing site, it returned to Talkeetna. Pomerantsev descended with the assistance of Ross and Grieve to the 14,200 foot camp, was examined and treated at the Ranger camp, and was flown out on the evening of May 23 to Anchorage. He was treated at Alaska Regional Hospital. He lost the first joint of eight of his fingers.


Pomerantsev was well versed in high altitude mountaineering with numerous ascents in the Pamir Range near his own country. But he was not prepared for the arctic conditions present on Mount McKinley.

There is no doubt that John Grieve and Bill Ross saved the life of Victor Pomerantsev. Had he not been discovered that morning, he would have died of hypothermia. Grieve and Ross had to abandon their climb after this incident. Their selfless commitment to provide full-time care for six days of stormy weather in a cramped tent was a very trying ordeal. The pair are to be commended for their life saving actions.

With the continued growth on Mount McKinley, we are seeing more incidents caused by inexperienced climbers which jeopardize the safety and welfare of others. To climb on the mountain one must be prepared to assist those in need, even though there is the likelihood that doing so could jeopardize your climb. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

(Editor’s Note: Pomerantsev’s equipment is reminiscent of that used by the ill-fated Russian women on Pik Lenin (23,406feet) in 1974. It may have been that he, like the rest of the Russian climbers of that time, simply had nothing better.

Among the other incidents from Denali National Park not reported in the narratives here were a number of illnesses and pre-existing conditions that resulted in evacuations being required. Examples include a person who arrived with a compression fracture of the femur, a person diagnosed as having a possible umbilical hernia, a person with ulcers, and a person getting serious hypoxia at 11,200feet—even though he ascended slowly.

The first “accident” reported in Alaska this year really does speak to a key issue for Denali National Park, and that is how to pay for the cost of rescue and recovery. The American climbing community seems mostly to agree that such costs should be the responsibility of the climbers involved. With rescue insurance being in place and readily available, it would seem that the Park could collect its costs without too much difficulty.

It is also becoming evident that given the number of climbers attempting the West Buttress each year now, a quota system may have to be implemented.)