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Fall on Snow, Party Separated-Climbing Alone, Fatigue, Alaska, Mount McKinley, Denali Pass


Alaska, Mount McKinley, Denali Pass

On May 18 at 0600, Kunibert Gramlich, from Germany, stumbled into the 17,200-foot camp on the West Buttress of Mount McKinley and requested assistance from National Park Service Ranger Mik Shain.

The Swiss Denali 2002 expedition began their ascent of Mount McKinley on May 11 and arrived at the 14,200-foot camp four days later. Following a rest day, the team made a summit attempt from the 14,200-foot camp. Gramlich became separated from the others during the day and was descending alone from Denali Pass. At some point he fell approximately 30 feet and injured his left side. To his credit Gramlich made it through the night alone without incurring environmental injuries, but upon his arrival at the ranger tent, he succumbed to exhaustion and spent the following ten hours in an NPS tent as volunteer doctor Mike Ross evaluated him. Doctor Ross discovered tenderness along the left chest wall and a large bruise below the rib-line. Ross was most concerned about the contusion on the soft lower left side that could indicate a life threatening injury of the spleen. Gramlich was administered oxygen and warm water bottles in an NPS sleeping bag. Rangers Reichert and Shain wanted to give the patient some time to stabilize to see if he could recover to the point where he could walk down under his own power. Following his initial assessment, Dr. Ross felt it could be dangerous for Gramlich to descend because another fall could cause his spleen to rupture.

The Swiss Denali 2002 expedition members who were at the 14,200- foot camp were notified and several of the team decided to ascend to see if they could help. Ranger John Evans was told that one of the ascending party was the “team doctor.” The teammates arrived at 17,200-feet between 1300 and 1400 and Dr. Ross conferred with the “team doctor” for a patient assessment. At that time Ross discovered that the person was a doctor of geology and that medicine was his “hobby.” Based on the pain that Gramlich experienced when sitting up or trying to walk, his low blood oxygen saturation (54% off of oxygen) and the mechanism of injury, Dr. Ross, with Rangers Reichert and Shain, decided that Gramlich needed a helicopter evacuation. At 1515 the request was made to Talkeetna, and at 1730, Gramlich was flown from 17,200-feet to 7,200 feet.

From the base camp at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier the patient was flown to Providence Hospital where Gramlich spent three days. He was diagnosed with several lower left rib fractures, a small spleen laceration and a bruised liver. He was treated for pain and held for observation. No surgery was necessary and he was released on May 22 to local lodging in Anchorage where he was to rest and check in with the doctor one more time before returning to Germany.


The Swiss Denali 2002 expedition should have traveled together and roped up. The leader, Richard Bolt, should not have allowed Gramlich to travel alone after the rest of the party descended. Because the fall was not witnessed, it is not known what caused it. Fatigue, icy conditions, and lack of concentration because camp appears so close are all contributing factors to accidents on this slope. (Source: Joe Reichert, Mountaineering Ranger)