Frostbite—Inadequate Clothing (No Overboots) and Inadequate Care of Extremities, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

Publication Year: 2007.


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

Jerry Hopfe flew onto Denali on May 2 as a part of the three-member “Steves” team. The group made steady progress arriving at 14,200 feet early on May 11 after camping a night at 13,500 feet. At 0200 on the 12th, the team of three departed the 14,200-foot camp for a summit attempt. When they reached the ridge at 16,200 feet, the full force of the wind made the already frigid temperatures unbearable for Hopfe. Feeling that his hands were close to freezing, Hopfe decided to abort the climb while his partners continued. Hopfe returned to his 14,200-foot camp by 0700 and rested for several hours.

Early afternoon on May 12, Hopfe came to the ranger camp and requested that a medic look at his fingers, which had blistered. Volunteer doctor Jay Mathers evaluated the right hand, which had large blisters on the thumb and first two fingers. Mathers suggested that they take a look at his feet as well. Upon inspection, Mathers discovered that all of Hopfe’s toes were blackened and he had moderate trench foot.

Because his teammates had not returned and working a stove would be damaging to his hand, Hopfe remained in the medical tent for the remainder of the day and the evening of the 12 th. On the morning of the 13 th, eight toes had blistered to the point that only by draining and bandaging them could his boots have been put back on. Hopfe’s partners had returned that night as well and were willing to descend with him.

Instead of risking the infection to the toes and further injuring his right hand, it was determined that Hopfe would be evacuated by helicopter. At 1515 Hopfe was evacuated by the NPS Lama helicopter to basecamp, where he was released from NPS care. Hopfe transferred to Talkeetna Air Taxi and returned to Talkeetna.

Hopfe decided to travel to his home in Vancouver, B.C., for his medical treatment. As of the beginning of August his right hand was doing well and expected to make a fall recovery. The toes were more seriously injured. While on the mountain, the blebs had formed in a doughnut shape around the first knuckle on each toe. This indicated early on that circulation had not returned to the tips of the toes. Circulation never did return to the eight toes, so doctors removed the tips of each to the first knuckle and today Hopfe has only complete little toes.


Frostbite is one of the more preventable injuries in the mountains. In this case, standard daily care, including drying his feet and changing his socks, may have prevented the permanent injury. Hopfe did not have overboots, which may have also helped, but not to the degree that dry socks would have. It is also common knowledge that May is cold, and it is uncommon for climbers to commence a summit bid in the middle of the night. Turning around at 16,200 feet was the best decision that Hopfe made on this ill-fated day. Once the injury occurred, it would have been prudent for Hopfe to seek care immediately so that all extremities could have been aggressively re-warmed in 105-degree F water as opposed to the passive re-warming in the sleeping bag. (Source: Joe Reichert, Ranger)