Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress
On May 31, a guided group of five clients led by Blaine Smith and Willy Peabody of Alaska Denali Guiding, was forced to spend the night out in a storm at 19,000 feet on
Mount McKinley. Due to this emergency bivouac four of the clients suffered second, third, and fourth degree frostbite on hands, feet and noses and required a National Park Service helicopter rescue. Several of the clients suffered tissue loss resulting from their frostbite.
Rapidly deteriorating weather conditions at the higher elevations on Mount McKinley have historically been contributing factors to serious accidents. This particular event led to the first fatality of the season. According to Ranger Roger Robinson who was stationed at the 14,200 foot camp, “The storm moved in very fast to 14,200 feet, movement in and out of the camp was nearly impossible due to strong winds and zero visibility.”
The decision to make a summit attempt on that morning was based on years of mountain experience and twelve previous summit trips that Blaine Smith had led. Ten groups successfully reached the summit on May 29, and one decided to turn around at the “football field.” Adrian Clarke was descending from his first summit of Mount McKinley when he passed the ADG group on Pig Hill. Clarke reported that he was surprised to see a guided tour still ascending in the marginal weather. The most ominous precursor to the severe weather was the wind shift from a northerly to a southerly. This change did not occur until the party was on the summit ridge. It is not always possible to wait for a bluebird day to make a summit attempt; hence, decisions must be made by evaluating the conditions and the group at hand.
One action that may have enabled the group to descend to Denali Pass more quickly would have been to place more wands at closer intervals on their ascent. If Smith had forced on into such conditions or they had not had the tools to shelter themselves, this incident would have been more serious. To the credit of the guides, there were no fatalities. (Source: Joe Reichardt, Mountaineering Ranger)