American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Dehydration, Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, Failure to Communicate, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1986


Alaska, Mount McKinley

Fred Wilson, 22, was a member of the three-man “FAB-1” expedition which flew to the basecamp on May 26, 1985, to climb the West Buttress. On June 6, Wilson and his partners Bob Shannon and Daniel Lewinski were camped at 5250 meters and ready to climb to the summit. Wilson had been having flu-like symptons and was unable to hold down much food or fluids for a couple of days. Early on June 7, the three started heading up toward the summit. At Denali Pass around 0930 Wilson became extremely weak and started losing his balance. The group decided to return to 5250 meters and Wilson was belayed by Lewinski since he was falling regularly.

As the group descended, two members from the “YMS” expedition (Barry Blanchard and Frank Lutick) noticed the FAB I problems and climbed over to help. The YMS group put Wilson in an igloo (1030) and tried to give him fluids and rewarm him. Wilson’s condition started to deteriorate and he started lapsing in and out of consciousness.

At 1200, Blanchard got 02 from the NPS rescue cache and administered it to Wilson, then started down to the 4350 meter level for medical assistance, since no one had a radio at 5250 meters. At 1330, a climber came down from the summit and gave Wilson some Deca- dron orally. Wilson was now improving with the 02.

Blanchard arrived at the Medical Research camp and a medical/rescue team was assembled leaving at 1600. Dr. Peter Hackett, Rob Roach and Charles Hollingshead arrived with Blanchard at 1830. Upon examination Wilson was given two liters of IV solution and some Compazine, which significantly improved his condition. At 2200 Wilson was ambulatory and lowered the first 200 meters down the rescue gully while on 02. He was then helped down under his own power to the Medical Research camp. Before leaving 5250 meters, Hackett had to convince Wilson’s partners to descend to 4350 meters in order to help. They did very little to assist in the evacuation and care of Wilson while at the 5250 meter camp.

Once at 4350 meters, Wilson was diagnosed as being dehydrated, possibly having CO poisoning and Acute Mountain Sickness. Wilson had improved on his descent and was able

to get back to basecamp under his own power the following day. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


Wilson had been sick prior to the summit attempt; however, he did not accurately describe the extent of his illness to his climbing partners. He became a serious liability by trying to climb to the summit. This could have been prevented had he been more open about his illness. It is imperative that expedition members be honest about their health status and know their limitations.

In addition, Wilson’s partners left him in the care of others once they returned to 5250 meters. These other climbers had to give up their climb in order to assist.

Wilson suffered serious dehydration because of nausea and vomiting which was due to Acute Mountain Sickness. CO poisoning may have played a role by precipitating AMS. Dehydration by itself can lead to severe weakness. Oxygen improved his condition, and Decadron may have as well. However, he was still too weak to walk until given IV fluids. Compazine is a very useful medication for nausea and vomiting, and unlike many other such agents, it does not decrease breathing; it actually is a respiratory stimulant. It is interesting to note that although there were a dozen climbers at the 5250 meter camp, most were too tired, weak and inexperienced to assist with the victim’s descent, including his own party. There is not always safety in numbers. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park, and Dr. Peter Hackett, Denali Medical Research Group)

(Editor’s Note: Of the 645 registered climbers on Mt. McKinley in 1985, 18 percent reported symptoms of AMS and 11 percent reported some degree of frostbite. Foreign climbers accounted for 19 percent of the traffic—a 37 percent decrease from last year.)

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