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Fatigue-Pulmonary Infection, Dehydration, Inadequate Equipment-No Stove, Alaska, Mount McKinley, Direct West Buttress


Alaska, Mount McKinley, Direct West Buttress

At 2121 on June 2, Jim LaRue (45) and River Lee-Elkin (27) of the “NW Buttress 02 ” expedition, after spending over forty hours on the Direct West Buttress, were assisted (including providing water) by National Park Service volunteer Wayne Fuller and Ranger Gordy Kito.

On May 15, LaRue and Lee-Elkin flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to attempt the Northwest Buttress of Mount McKinley. They climbed to the 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress to acclimate before heading over to the Northwest Buttress. At 0800 on May 31, LaRue and Lee-Elkin departed the 14,200-foot camp to attempt a new variation of the Direct West Buttress. The route ascends from the 12,500-foot basin, just below “Windy Corner” on the West Buttress, to the top of the “fixed lines” at 16,200 feet on the West Buttress. The pair left an itinerary with Mark Givens of the “Colonial Mountain Militia” expedition. Their expected time en route was twelve to eighteen hours.

When interviewed LaRue and Lee-Elkin stated that they believed the route would take just over 12 hours. As they approached the top of the route, LaRue became short of breath. He had taken over an hour to second pitches. Late on the night of June 1, the pair decided to spend the night out and finish the route in the morning. After a sleepless night, they climbed toward the top of the route. Approximately 50 feet below the top of the route, LaRue became concerned that his breathing difficulty may have been high altitude pulmonary edema. The pair decided that their safest option, rather than traversing the ridge at 16,000 feet, was to rappel the route in order to lose altitude more quickly. Rappelling the route, over 30 pitches, took the majority of June 2.

LaRue was examined by NPS volunteer Doctor Jennifer Dow. Upon examination, Dow found a possible pulmonary infection that worsened with altitude and exertion. LaRue had a productive cough with green sputum and no blood. LaRue’s condition improved slightly with the administration of an Albuterol inhaler. After several days at the 14,200-foot camp, LaRue and Lee-Elkin decided to return to the 7,200-foot base camp.


The team was dehydrated and extended to its limit. It is believed that this team would have been able to return to the 14,200-foot camp without the assistance of the NPS, but their safety margin would have been stretched rather thin. LaRue and Lee-Elkin reported that they thought they made a mistake in not bringing a stove to melt water. Other than this oversight the team was well prepared and encountered an unforeseen medical condition. It should be noted that LaRue and Lee-Elkin had previously traveled to the 17,200 foot camp to leave a cache without any altitude related illness. (Source: Gordy Kito, Mountaineering Ranger)