American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

HAPE, HACE, Climbing Alone, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

At 1813 on May 27, Joshua Wax (28), a solo climber experiencing symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), was evacuated by helicopter from approximately 18,800 feet on Mount McKinley’s West Buttress route. The National Park Service Lama helicopter short-hauled Wax to the 7,200-foot base camp where he was assessed and transferred to a fixed wing aircraft, which flew him to Talkeetna. Wax was then transferred to a Lifeguard helicopter and transported to Providence Hospital in Anchorage.


Solo climbing has inherent risks. Although Wax was advised not to solo by many people, including the park rangers, he made that choice. It is believed that Wax left the 17,200-foot camp on the afternoon of May 26 for the summit. The details of Wax’s ascent are incomplete. It is believed that he was descending from the summit when he became disoriented and ataxic. He is thought to have collapsed on the “football field” late night on the 26th or in the morning of the 27th.

As Wax climbed higher and started to be affected by high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), his judgment became impaired and his decision-making capacity became diminished. If Wax had a partner with him, he/she may have noticed these changes and encouraged or convinced Wax to descend. This may have avoided putting additional climbers and National Park Service employees and resources at risk. Wax was incredibly fortunate to have been found by a passing party and equally fortunate that they had the knowledge, skills, and ability to effect his rescue. Had Wax not been found he surely would have perished. (Source: Gordy Kito, Mountaineering Ranger)

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