Alaska, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, West Buttress
Masamichi Kobayashi (65) was a part of the Tokyo-JAC expedition comprised of four Japanese men. They flew onto the mountain on June 14 and progressed to the 17,200-foot camp in average time. This team shadowed a larger Japanese IARC-JAC team who’s leader has been leading expeditions on the mountain for almost 20 years, which included attempting to maintain a weather data collection station above Denali pass.
On June 29, after three days at high camp for acclimatization, the teams departed for the summit and to perform the maintenance on the weather station. Together the group numbered nine climbers. Two members stopped at the weather station (about 18,700 feet), evaluated the damage done the previous winter, cached the tripod remains, and descended to camp. Weather deteriorated slowly during the day, during which the remaining seven climbers gained the summit. (Of interest is that one of Kobayashi’s teammates—at age 76—became the oldest man to summit Denali.)
While descending, Kobayashi began to have trouble with his vision. Weather conditions also deteriorated as the winds picked up. The extra assistance that his teammates gave to Kobayashi as well as the weather caused them all to slow down. By 0100 that evening the group had reached Denali Pass, but felt that they could not safely descend to high camp do to the weather and Kobayashi’s condition. The seven climbers took shelter next to a rock and shared three bivouac sacs through the coldest part of the night.
On the morning of June 30, the team successfully descended to their high camp and requested that Ranger Tucker Chenoweth evaluate Kobayashi. Upon evaluation, Chenoweth and volunteer EMT Stuart Paterson found rales in the lower lung lobe on the right side and were instructed by sponsoring physician Dr. Dow to continue Nifedipine, administer Albuteral, and begin oxygen therapy.
Due to inclement weather lower on the mountain, the helicopter was unable to evacuate the patient from high camp, so it was decided to lower Kobayashi to the 14,200-foot camp via litter. Chenoweth and his volunteers rigged the anchors and briefed all participants in the details of the operation. At 1836 they began lowering Kobayashi from the 17,200-foot camp using the 3000-foot rescue rope stored there for this purpose. Volunteer Mike Loso was tending the patient for the roped portion of the lowering. At 2017, Loso reached ranger Kevin Wright and his partner Ben Habecker, who relieved Loso and tended Kobayashi on the remaining descent to the 14,200-foot camp, where they arrived at 2154.
Again on July 1st, the weather prevented a helicopter evacuation. Kobayashi was treated with oxygen and in a hyperbaric chamber as ranger John Loomis and his volunteers worked to stabilize him. While his team remained at high camp and helped to put away the gear used in the lowering, Loomis was trying to evaluate Kobayashi to determine if he would regain the strength needed to descend with his team.
Without significant improvement, and because his oxygen saturation dropped into the 60’s when removed from supplemental oxygen, it was decided to evacuate Kobayashi by air. At 1039 on July 2, the National Park Service contract Lama Helicopter transported Kobayashi to Talkeetna, where he was transferred to the Aeromed fixed wing aircraft and flown to the hospital in Anchorage. Following an evaluation Kobayashi was released from the hospital on the same day.
The National Park Service recommends a time line for ascending the West Buttress that provides most climbers adequate acclimatization. This formula prescribes 10-13 days up to the high camp at 17,200 feet. Kobashi’s team moved to high camp on their twelfth day on the mountain, so were well within the average recommended time for the ascent.
Altitude illness can affect anyone, even when they have acclimated properly. Kobayashi had not reported any altitude sickness symptoms prior to their attempt on the summit. This is another case of the unpredictability of altitude related illnesses. This team had the strength and experience to assist their stricken partner and get him back to high camp safely, where they assisted NPS rangers with Kobayashi’s evacuation. It is often the case, even with younger climbers, that symptoms do not resolve significantly until the patient returns to low altitude. (Source: Edited from a report by Joe Reichert, Ranger)