American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

AMS—Ascending Too Fast, Climbing "Alone"—But Depending Upon Others, Alaska, Mount McKinley, Denali Pass

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  • Publication Year: 2001

AMS–ASCENDING TOO FAST, CLIMBING "ALONE"–BUT DEPENDING UPON OTHERS

Alaska, Mount McKinley, Denali Pass

On June 25 at 1940, Ranger Meg Perdue received a radio call from Volunteer Ranger Karen Hilton at the 17,200-foot high camp regarding a solo climber

who was non-ambulatory on the traverse from Denali Pass. A guide there relayed to Hilton that he had been contacted via CB radio by a private expedition, Spirit of El Rancho, who were very concerned about this climber, Russell Worthington (29). He had been traveling with them to the summit and had vomited on the summit ridge several times and appeared ataxic. Now, upon their descent, they relayed he was unable to walk and was again vomiting. Worthington’s position was reported to be halfway between Denali Pass and the rock band that initiates the traverse above the 17,200-foot camp.

At 1947, the Spirit of El Rancho Expedition was recontacted directly by Hilton, and confirmed that Worthington was exhausted and unable to walk, but that he was alert and oriented. They were instructed to give him fluids and await farther assistance. At 1951, Hilton was able to contact two other Volunteer Rangers, Josie Garton and Dave Shuman, who were descending from the summit and were currently at Denali Pass. At 2000, Hilton had secured the assistance of three guides, Bob Hornbein, Scott Raynor and Kirby Spangler, and was preparing to ascend with oxygen to meet them. At this time, Ranger Perdue also contacted Talkeetna and relayed the situation, gave current weather observations, and requested the helicopter be put on stand-by.

At 2022, Garton and Shuman reached Worthington’s location and assessed his condition. Worthington’s condition had already improved somewhat with fluids and food, and though he showed signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, he was not ataxic. They determined that he could be safely short-roped down to camp.

At 2204, they arrived at the 17,200-foot camp, Worthington’s condition was reassessed and he was found to be doing well. He rested at camp that night, was checked again in the morning, and descended to the 14,200-foot camp on his own.

Analysis

Two important and intractable issues present themselves in this case. One is the relative rapidity of Worthington’s ascent and the second is the problem of “solo” climbers asking to rope up with other expeditions on the mountain. Worthington had been on Mt. McKinley only 10 days by the date of his summit bid. He had actually ascended to 17,200 feet on day nine, but returned to 14,200 feet when he developed a severe headache. There is always a question in cases such as this if a slower ascent rate might have resulted in the whole situation being avoided. In interviews with members of the Spirit of El Rancho Expedition and Worthington, it came to light that Worthington had asked if he could rope up with them on summit day to which they agreed. They had become very concerned about Worthington near the summit and wanted to turn him around, but did not feel comfortable telling him that since he was not part of their expedition. They also felt a certain responsibility for him since they had agreed to rope up with him and, thus, did not want to leave him on his own. For Worthington’s part, in interviewing him, he admitted that he did not believe he was properly acclimatized and stated, “I knew I would get sick.”

When queried as to why he would put another expedition in the position of dealing with this, he said, “I didn’t think it would be a problem.” Since he had done things like this before (rapid ascents where he felt ill), he thought he could handle it and did not expect the group to react the way they did. Worthington maintained throughout that he did not need the assistance and never would have called for it.

The problem still remains that one individual’s difficulties invariably become the concerns of others in an environment such as Mount McKinley. It is only when everyone takes very seriously the need for self-sufficiency that the risks can be minimized for all concerned.

(Editor's Note: All the reports from Denali National Park were edited by Daryl Miller, South District Chief Ranger in Denali National Park. The reports he worked from were written by Rangers Roger Robinson, Kevin Moore, and others.)

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