American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Pulmonary Edema, Party Separated, Improper Medication, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984


Alaska, Mount McKinley

At 0930 on April 24,1983, Manfred Kessler (38), Wilfred Stelzhammer and Gebhard Fritz (an Austrian expedition) were flown onto the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to climb the West Buttress of Mount McKinley. They left immediately and camped at 2670 meters at 1830.

On April 25, they climbed quickly and stopped at 3720 meters by 1600. Both Kessler and Stelzhammer were exhausted and threw up. On the morning of April 26, Stelzhammer still felt bad, while Kessler had improved. At 1200 they moved to 3950 meters and camped in the bergschrund to get out of the wind. By evening they all felt fine. On April 27, they proceeded to 4300 meters and set up camp. At 1000 on April 28, Carl Merritt and Brian Okonek, who were with the High Latitude Medical Research Group, examined Kessler and found his pulse to be 85. Kessler said his condition had regressed since the previous evening. Merritt gave Kessler fluids. At 1630, Kessler’s pulse was 115. Merritt listened to Kessler’s lungs but could not detect rales or gurgling. Merritt recommended immediate descent. At 1700, Kessler, Fritz and Stelzhammer started down. Kessler had a bad headache, shortness of breath and was coughing up pink, frothy sputum. He also found it hard to keep his balance. At 1815 they stopped at 3870 meters to wait for Kessler to improve so they could climb back up again. At 2000 Kessler took a sleeping pill. His pulse was 110 and he slept briefly. At 0900 on April 29, Fritz and Stelzhammer left Kessler alone at 3870 meters and climbed to 4240 meters to retrieve some food and equipment. At 1200, Kessler’s pulse was 125.

They did not have a radio, but by 1230, Fritz and Stelzhammer contacted Merritt and Okonek at 4290 meters, and shortly afterward, Okonek relayed Kessler’s condition to Ranger Waterman in Talkeetna. Waterman notified Chris Soloy Helicopters to stand by. At 1320 Waterman asked K2 Aviation pilot, Jim Okonek, to do a flight check to see if it was possible for a helicopter to get into the mountain. At 1320 Okonek contacted Waterman and informed him that a 3700-meter cloud ceiling was slowly rising and that Kessler could not walk. Waterman advised that the Austrians wait until 1730 for a helicopter before descending with Kessler. At 1340 Okonek notified Waterman that the weather would permit flying into the Kahiltna Glacier. At 1342 Waterman contacted Soloy, who flew his Hughes 500 D helicopter to Talkeetna.

At 1420 Okonek and John Wason departed Talkeetna to monitor the weather for Soloy. At 1430 Stelzhammer and Fritz arrived at 3870 meters. At 1445 Soloy and Waterman departed Talkeetna in the helicopter, while pilot Okonek found a route through the cloud layers. At 1510 Kessler tried to walk but found he had little balance. He had had seven cups of tea that day but could not eat any food. At 1520 Soloy touched down on the lip of a bergschrund. Waterman jumped out and assisted Kessler into the helicopter. Waterman administered oxygen to Kessler with a demand mask. By 1540 Kessler’s condition had improved markedly. At 1609 Soloy, Okonek, Wason, Waterman and Kessler were back in Talkeetna. Kessler felt lightheaded but otherwise normal. He volunteered to pay for the costs of his rescue. (Source: Jonathan Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


The three Austrians climbed much too quickly to acclimatize properly. They should have recognized the dangers and rested a day after they became sick at 3720 meters. It is interesting to note that Ranger Gill cautioned this party about climbing too fast just before they flew onto the mountain. On April 28 they should have continued to descend below 3870 meters in an attempt to alleviate Kessler’s HAPE symptoms rather than stopping.

Stelzhammer and Fritz should not have left Kessler alone at 3870 meters on April 29. They should have continued down the mountain immediately to alleviate Kessler’s HAPE symptoms. A final observation is that sleeping pills are a respiratory depressant which can invite or compound HAPE. (Source: Jonathan Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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