American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) — Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

The “Kiwi Denali” expedition included Richard Walshe, Andre Bell, Dave McKinley, and Pete O’Connor. On June 6 three of the members, including Walshe, Bell, and O’Connor, departed from the 17,200-foot camp en route to the summit via the West Buttress. During their ascent Bell separated from the group and descended to the group’s camp at 17,200 feet by himself. Walshe and O’Connor, moving slower, continued and reached the summit by midafternoon. During their descent Walshe began to have difficulty walking. At 1630 an NPS patrol that had reached the summit ridge that afternoon caught up with Walshe and O’Connor during their descent. Ranger Michael Nash contacted the 14,200-foot NPS camp and relayed Walshe’s condition.

Nash, his two patrol members, and O’Connor used short rope and running belay techniques to lower Walshe to Denali Pass. Walshe remained ataxic, stumbling and falling frequently, and was unable to care for himself during the three hour descent to Denali Pass. At Denali Pass an RMI guided group caught up with the lowering party and assisted with the traverse from the pass by setting additional anchors. At 2000 the NPS camp contacted several other guides located at the 17,200 feet and asked for assistance. Several guides ascended to the Denali Pass traverse and began setting fixed lines. Walshe was lowered down the fixed lines and arrived at 17,200 feet at 2400. Walshe was stabilized, evaluated, and found to be suffering from high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Walshe was treated with Dexamethasone as per protocol, hydrated, and observed throughout the night. The following day, with the assistance of his three other expedition members, Walshe descended to the 14,200-foot camp where he was again evaluated and treated by NPS personnel. Walshe remained at 14,200 feet for 48 hours and completed the descent to basecamp with his team, returning to Talkeetna on June 19.


Neither You or Walshe reported having AMS symptoms prior to their summit day making high altitude pulmonary edema and cerebral edema unpredictable factors with the potential to cause disaster in the high mountains. All groups were fortunate that climbers in the area were able to assist in the descent from 19,000 feet. (Source: Billy Shott, Mountaineering Ranger)

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