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Sudden Death on Summit — Near Denali Pas, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

SUDDEN DEATH - NEAR DENALI PASS

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

At 2200 on July 7, Ranger John Loomis received a call on the emergency call out phone from ranger Kevin Wright at the 14,200-foot camp. Wright reported that he had received FRS radio transmissions from Peter Anderson (Rainier Mountaineering Guide) at 17,200 feet about a fatality on the Mountain Trip group while descending. Loomis contacted Helicopter Manager Dave Kreutzer and Ranger Joe Reichert and all met at the ranger station.

At 2304 we received a direct satellite phone call from Constantine (Con) Severis at high camp on the West Buttress. Severis confirmed that Pungkas Tri Baruno (20) had died near the rocks at the bottom of the traverse from Denali Pass (approximately 17,400 feet). At the time of this phone call, Severis had just returned to camp, so the rangers encouraged him to get food and water and call back at 2330. With the name of the deceased confirmed, Loomis began the public relations process of notifying the family. Unable to reach a person at the Indonesian consulate, he phoned the American embassy in Indonesia and was able to relay the information to them so that they could make arrangements to make the notification.

Severis contacted the ranger Search and Rescue room again at 2337. Rangers were able to learn that the team had reached the summit about 1600 that day. They had departed high camp at 0900 and it had been a smooth day until just before the incident. Pungkas was traveling slowly on the descent, reported Severis, but no slower than other tired clients whom he had worked with. The time of the incident was around 2000. Severis attempted to resuscitate Pungkas for 30-45 minutes where he had collapsed. With additional help from guides, Josh Kling (the second Mountain Trip guide) and Greg Vernovage (Alaska Mountaineering School) who had arrived from the high camp, they attempted to transport Pungkas back to camp, but due to the deep snow, lack of a sled, and fatigue they were forced to leave him.

During this phone call Severis reported that Hartman Nugraha (the second client on the team) was especially distraught. The rangers encouraged the guides to not let Nugraha spend the night alone. Josh Kling said he would be able to move into the Indonesians’ tent. The rangers encouraged him to take care of his group and call again in the morning. A check-in time was set for 1000. During this time Bill Allen of Mountain Trip, had been alerted and was making plans to come to Talkeetna in the morning with a friend of the group to translate for Nugraha. At 0405 on July 8, ranger Loomis received a call from the family in Indonesia and answered basic questions asked of him by a brother of the deceased.

Wright and Nick Armitage moved Pungkas to the 17,200-foot camp on July 9. On July 10 Bill Billmeier and Jacob Schmitz, guides for Mountain Trip, assisted the NPS by clipping Pungkas into the short haul rope under the Lama helicopter. These guides were at high camp on their own expedition and having them perform the hook-up allowed ranger Wright to descend and prepare more of the 14,200-foot camp to be removed.

Analysis

Through interviewing the three survivors on this expedition, it appears that all regular safety measures were followed on this particular summit climb. Once Pungkas collapsed, Severis made every effort possible to resuscitate him using all appropriate wilderness emergency medical protocols. Following my investigation it appears that this was a natural, albeit surprising, fatality. By every report, guides Severis and Kling progressed up the route at a pace that was normal for climbers who have not experienced high altitude before. Hartman Nugraha confirmed that communication with the guides was clear and that they understood the challenges of the climb each day.

Based on Nugraha’s statement, the language barrier between the guides and the clients did not inhibit communication to the point that it was detrimental to understanding daily operations. Perhaps the guides were not able to read the subtleties in behavior change that may have been more apparent if they shared a common language and culture. More likely it appears that common warning signs that happen to climbers at altitude were not present. The nausea experienced by each client was known by the guides and recuperation time was allowed for before the group climbed higher. Headaches, ataxia, and loss of appetite were not present in this group.

The autopsy report from the State Medical Examiner’s office states that the cause of death was “Sudden Arrhythmic Cardiac Death”. (Source: Joe Reichert, Ranger, Denali National Park)

(Editor’s Note: Two sudden deaths within days of each other would have to be considered highly unusual and unique. No other incidents like this have occurred on Mount McKinley.)