On June 10, Brian Young (52) went into sudden cardiac arrest in his tent at high camp after having climbed to the summit of Denali earlier that day. The team that he was climbing with reported that during their summit climb, he suffered from altitude illness and was affected to the point of vomiting several times, stumbling, and losing his footing while descending to high camp. Upon his arrival at high camp, his climbing companions suggested that he check in with NPS rangers at high camp, but Young stated that he felt fine and would prefer to take a nap. He entered the tent, which was occupied by two other climbers, and they reported him falling asleep quickly and immediately exhibiting Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Shortly thereafter, they did not hear any breathing sounds coming from his sleeping bag. They opened his bag to find him unresponsive and not breathing. His tent mates notified NPS rangers who initiated CPR, which was terminated after 30 minutes due to no signs of a pulse. After conferring with the NPS medical director, Brian Young was pronounced dead at 1100. Poor weather delayed recovery of his body until June 16.
Although it’s difficult to predict who might develop an emergency cardiac condition while climbing at high altitude, it stands to reason that individuals with a history of cardiac issues can be considered at higher risk.
According to interviews with family members, Brian Young had no history of cardiac issues; however, he was reported to have lost 30 pounds in the four to six weeks leading up to the start of his climb. Common side effects of rapid weight loss are changes in blood sugar level, changes in blood pressure, electrolyte imbalance, and a higher risk of heart arrhythmias. Brian Young was described by all those who climbed with him on Mount McKinley as strong and healthy, with the exception of those who climbed with him above 17,200 feet. On his summit climb, Young was reported as having bouts of ataxia and vomited several times. Despite suggestions from his summit partners, Young did not feel like he had any reason to seek medical assistance once he was back at the 17,200-foot camp.
Although medical resources are very limited at the high camp, timely medical intervention might have been helpful in averting the final outcome. (Source: Coley Gentzel, Lead Mountaineering Ranger)
(Editor’s Note: Episodes of illness, while not technically climbing accidents, are counted and some are reported each year. Some illnesses actually result in such accidents as falls on rock, snow, or ice. Some result in significant rescue efforts that may put park personnel and others at risk. Altitude-related illnesses are often due to rapid ascent and/or age and not being in good physical condition. In the case of guided clients, some have preexisting conditions that they have not reported, which may include both illnesses injuries that flare up as a result of exercise and/or altitude.)