Dehydration, Unable to Get to Mittens—Frostbite, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Rib

Publication Year: 2004.


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Rib

On May 3rd, the three-member expedition, Rocky Mountain West Rib, led by Fabrizio Zangrilli, flew in to the Kahiltna Glacier to attempt the West Rib. On the 17th, they ascended the 1200-foot West Rib Couloir. On this ascent, Roger Pennington (age unknown), a member of the expedition, frostbit several of his fingers. Pennington felt both dehydration and the inability to get to his heavy mittens when he needed them caused the frostbite. They spent that night on a small ice ledge at the top of the couloir. The next day they moved up to the Apex Camp at 12,900 feet. Over the course of these two days, Pennington felt he had thawed, refrozen and thawed his left ring finger.

On the 20th they moved to a 13,300-foot camp where as a group they decided that Pennington needed to be evacuated because of his frostbite and slow pace. At 0956, Zangrilli requested assistance through his aircraft radio to a scenic flight overhead, flown by Eric Denkewalter of Talkeetna Aero Services. At 1012, Zangrilli described frostbite on two fingers of Pennington’s right hand and the ring finger on his left. Ranger Daryl Miller stated that the helicopter was not available on that day and recommended that the expedition continue to the 14,800-foot bergschrund camp where they would be in a safe place if weather changed. A call-back time was set at 1800. The NPS chartered Talkeetna Air Taxi to fly Ranger Roger Robinson for this call-back. While on this flight at 1805, Zangrilli indicated that they had only made it to the 14,500-foot level and were digging in. Zangrilli still insisted on the rescue, and he was informed that the Park Service would try the next morning.

On May 21st at 1000, the contract Lama helicopter with pilot Jim Hood and manager Dave Kreutzer departed Talkeetna en route to the West Rib. The Lama was on scene at 1046 where it was determined that a shorthaul using the basket could be accomplished. The Lama proceeded to the 14,200-foot camp where the shorthaul was rigged and then returned at 1052 extracting Pennington in the basket. Pennington was first shorthauled to the 14,200-foot camp and then transported inside the Lama to Kahiltna Basecamp, then to Talkeetna. Once in Anchorage, Pennington was diagnosed with superficial to partial thickness frostbite on the first digit of three of his fingers.


Pennington’s frostbite is very typical of what is seen frequently by the rangers at 14,200 feet. The Ranger Staff felt that Pennington would not need a rescue and could probably descend via the West Buttress if he could only get there. The big question was whether Pennington could ascend to 15,200 feet on the West Rib, because then he could easily reach the 14,200-foot camp.

Once the Rocky Mountain West Rib party had made up their mind that Pennington was not going higher, then we were left with two options —either doing a ground rescue or an air evacuation. Since slope conditions were unknown between 14,500 feet and 15,200 feet, it was felt that the least risk to personnel was to use the Lama helicopter. If Pennington had been climbing on the West Buttress he would have been told to walk down. (Source: Ranger Roger Robinson)

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