2017 Annual Mountaineering Summary

A happy and well-bundled climber celebrates on the summit
Doesn't get much bluer than this.  NPS Photo (Melis Coady)

2017 Statistical Year in Review

Each season's mountaineering route statistics, including total attempts and total summits for Denali and Foraker, are now compiled into one spreadsheet spanning from 1979 to 2017. The Denali Dispatches blog can provide a more detailed perspective of the 2017 season, including daily statistics, weather, conditions reports, photos, and random climbing news. Visit our VIP page for a list of all 2017 mountaineering volunteers. Read about the efforts of the 2017 recipients of the Mislow-Swanson Denali Pro Award.

Quick Facts - Denali

  • Climbers from the USA: 768 (65% of total)
    The percentage of US climbers was higher than average in 2017, a number which more typically hovers closer to 60%. For the first time in many years, there were fewer Alaskans on Denali than other states. Colorado showed the highest turnout in 2017 with 121 climbers, followed by Washington (108), Alaska (101), and California (69).
  • International climbers: 421 (35% of total)
    Fewer foreigners than usual attempted Denali in 2017. Of those that did, the highest number came from right next door in Canada, with 61 climbers. Next in line was Japan with 46 climbers, followed by Germany and Russia, each of which were represented by 30 climbers.
  • Average Trip Length
    Most expeditions took about one day longer than last year, with an overall average trip length of 17.4 days, start to finish.
  • Average Age
    The average age was 39 years old. The youngest climber to attempt Denali this year was 11 years old, the oldest was 73.
  • Women climbers
    Women comprised 15% of total (175 women), the highest percentage in history. The summit rate specific to women was 37%.
  • Summits by month
    April (5) - the first summit of the season occurred on April 16
    May (88)

    June (311)
    July (91)
  • Busiest Summit Days
    May 31: 54 summits
    June 1: 49 summits
    June 14: 48 summits
    June 20: 37 summits

2017 Search and Rescue Summary

Cardiac Emergency
West Buttress, Denali

(May 16) NPS mountaineering rangers were notified of a guided climber experiencing chest pain at the 14,200-foot camp. The patient complained of sudden onset chest and left shoulder pain. The patient reported no personal or family history of cardiac issues. Following a complete patient assessment and evaluation with a cardiac monitor, the patient was treated for acute coronary syndrome with oxygen, aspirin and morphine. Due to the cardiac field diagnosis, the decision was made to evacuate the patient by air. The patient was flown back to Talkeetna airport and transferred to local ambulance providers without incident.

Crevasse Fall
West Buttress, Denali

(May 26) NPS rangers received a radio call at 14,200-foot camp that a climber on an independent team had fallen into a crevasse while traveling un-roped at 8,300 feet on Denali’s West Buttress. Two mountain guides on scene extracted the verbally-responsive climber from 20 meters below the glacier surface within 30 minutes. Further NPS assistance was requested due to severe flank pain and a concern about hypothermia. When NPS personnel arrived on scene, they determined the potential for a lower back injury necessitated an air evacuation in full spinal motion restriction. Once the weather cleared the following morning, the patient was evacuated via helicopter to Talkeetna in a vacuum mattress and cervical collar and transferred to ground ambulance.

West Buttress, Denali

(May 27) Mountaineering rangers in Talkeetna received a satellite phone call indicating that a climber sustained frostbite injuries to all ten fingers while descending the West Buttress route on Denali and was in need of rescue. Subsequently, a climbing party contacted mountaineering rangers at 14,200 feet via FRS radio to report a non-ambulatory climber with frostbitten fingers lying in a sleeping bag at 16,800 feet during their ascent. While the NPS patrol began ascending to the injured patient’s location, they learned that two independent climbers had begun to lower the patient from Washburn’s Thumb. Three additional mountain guides assisted with the lowering operation until they rendezvoused with the NPS team at 14,800 feet, who then lowered the patient to 14,200-foot camp for assessment and treatment for frostbite. While waiting for weather to clear for a helicopter evacuation, rangers consulted with frostbite experts at the University of Utah who recommended prompt thrombolytic therapy. That evening, the patient was flown from 14,200-foot camp direct to the airport in Palmer, Alaska and transferred to the regional hospital by ambulance.

Airplane Crash
Upper Airstrip, Ruth Gorge

(May 28) An airplane flipped during an aborted take-off at the upper Ruth Gorge airstrip beneath Mount Dickey. While turning at the bottom of the runway to make a second attempt, the right ski dug into the deep snow and caused the plane to flip over the nose and onto its roof. When the plane came to rest, the pilot assisted all six passengers to exit the plane and performed cursory patient assessments on each. The pilot was able to report this incident to other planes in the vicinity. All six passengers and pilot were flown back to Talkeetna in another aircraft, four of whom were transported to the regional hospital by local ambulance for evaluation of minor injuries, airsickness and nausea.

West Buttress, Denali

(June 4) An NPS patrol responded to a climber suffering acute stomach pain at 6,700 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. Earlier that day, the same patrol had assessed the patient for stomach pain at 14,200-foot camp, however at that time, both the climber and NPS medical providers determined self-evacuation was possible. As that climber descended throughout the day, symptoms of appendicitis appeared. The patient was transported via toboggan to basecamp due to the increased pain and difficulty walking. NPS rangers treated the patient with pain medication and antibiotics until he could be evacuated by air the following morning. At the airport, he was transferred to local EMS for transport to the regional hospital for surgery.

Crevasse Fall
West Buttress, Denali

(June 4) While descending the West Buttress, two un-roped climbers on snowshoes encountered a 4-foot wide crevasse just below 7,800-foot camp. As the first climber began to cross the snow bridge covering this crevasse, the bridge collapsed and the climber fell roughly 60 feet into the crevasse, only stopping when he became wedged in the narrowing fissure. His partner could not see him and returned to 7,800-foot camp to get help.

Multiple guides camped at 7,800 feet responded to the calls for help and notified NPS mountaineering rangers. The guides arrived on scene shortly after midnight and were able to communicate with the patient. These guides took turns descending into the crevasse multiple times to attempt extrication. The patient was wedged in such a way that simply hauling on his climbing harness would have resulted in further injury. The guides were able to clip into the patient’s harness in hopes of keeping him in place and remove items from his backpack to allow additional room for him to breathe.

When the weather cleared several hours later, the NPS helicopter flew additional mountaineering rangers and volunteers to the accident scene to relieve the guides that had been working continuously for almost four hours. The rescue crews found the working conditions inside the crevasse to be extremely challenging. Each rescuer was lowered to the point where she/he became stuck themselves and began chipping away at the ice with an ice axe to create room to extricate the patient. Around 5:00 am, one of the rangers was able to free the patient from his backpack and alleviate continued breathing issues. Additional personnel, including guides, independent climbers, and another mountaineering ranger arrived throughout the morning hours to assist in the rescue. The rescuers all took turns chipping away ice in the crevasse with various implements (ice axes, chainsaws, pneumatic chisel, blowtorch) until the patient was finally freed at 3:20 pm, after approximately 15 hours of tedious extrication work.

Once freed, the patient was raised from the crevasse with a rope mechanical advantage system, and then transferred to a vacuum mattress for spinal injury precautions. During the rescue, the patient’s mental status steadily declined to responsive only to pain stimuli. The patient was transported via NPS helicopter direct to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital due to inclement weather to the south of the mountain range. The patient was treated primarily for severe hypothermia in the ICU for several days before being discharged to return home.

Snow Blindness
Cassin Ridge, Denali

(June 11) Mountaineering rangers responded to a climber suffering from snow blindness at 14,200-foot camp after summiting Denali via the Cassin Ridge one day prior. The climb of the Cassin was completed in poor weather with high winds, during which the team lost multiple pieces of equipment included the patient’s goggles. This loss proved problematic on summit day when glacier glasses did not provide adequate protection from the high winds and sunlight. NPS volunteer paramedics provided continual treatment over a 24-hour period, however these efforts yielded no improvement. The decision was made to evacuate the patient by helicopter for further assessment and treatment.

West Buttress, Denali

(June 12) Mountaineering rangers initiated treatment on a patient for both frostbite and severe dehydration. The climber was first injured while bivouacking during a storm on Denali’s summit on June 11 and sustained deep frostbite injuries to multiple fingers and toes. The patient was flown to Talkeetna on June 13 for further treatment in a regional hospital.

West Buttress, Denali

(June 15) Mountaineering ranger patrol responded to two climbers from the same expedition team suffering from deep frostbite injuries to their hands. These climbers descended to 14,200-foot camp following a summit attempt the day prior. The climbers reported that they initially frostbit their hands while traversing below Denali Pass. During the medical assessment, the ranger and volunteer discovered that one of the two patients was also exhibiting signs and symptoms of snow blindness. Both climbers were treated overnight, and the following day they were evacuated via helicopter and transferred to the local ambulance and hospital.

West Buttress, Denali

(June 16) A climber died from suspected high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema (HAPE and HACE) at 17,500 feet while descending the West Buttress route. The team of three had departed for the summit on June 15, the ninth day of their expedition. The patient struggled to keep up throughout the day and requested to remain at the Football Field (19,500 feet) while his partners continued to the summit. His teammates reported that when they reunited on the Football Field after summiting, the patient was moving slowly and unsteadily on his feet. His teammates began short roping the climber below Denali Pass while traversing to high camp. The patient became non-ambulatory about thirty minutes above camp and his teammates secured him to an ice axe before descending to camp to summon help. Another party on the climbing route encountered this team and used their satellite device to initiate a rescue.

The NPS patrol at high camp, along with five guides, responded to the scene. At the time of their callout, rangers reported that the weather conditions were challenging with extreme wind chills and near zero visibility. The two NPS volunteers who were the first rescuers on scene radioed that the patient was non-ambulatory and had a reduced mental status. While they began constructing anchors for a traversing lowering operation, the patient began removing his gloves and other attire often characteristic of hypothermia and his mental status continued to deteriorate toward unresponsiveness. While the rescue team completed a 120-meter lowering operation to get the patient to 17,200-foot camp, the patient deteriorated to both respiratory and cardiac arrest. The team attempted airway and breathing maneuvers which were unsuccessful at reviving the patient. The patient was declared deceased. When the storm finally cleared on June 18, the patient’s remains were flown in the NPS helicopter to Talkeetna and transferred to the state medical examiner.

Knee Injury
Rescue Gully, West Buttress, Denali

(June 16) An NPS mountaineering patrol treated a patient that had been involved in an avalanche in Rescue Gully below 17,200-foot camp. The mountaineer had triggered, and was subsequently caught in, a slide while skiing the couloir. During the approximate 200-foot tumbling fall, the skier came to a rest atop the avalanche debris. However, the skier had lost his skis, various pieces of mountaineering equipment and his prescription eyewear during the avalanche. Due to the high avalanche hazard and poor visibility, NPS rescue response was deemed unfeasible for scene safety concerns. The skier's team was able to evacuate him to 14,200-foot camp where he was assessed and treated by NPS personnel. The skier was evacuated in the NPS helicopter on June 17 with a knee injury.

NPS volunteers shuttle a patient in a sled to an awaiting helicopter at Basecamp
A non-ambulatory patient gets shuttled to an awaiting helicopter at Basecamp. (NPS Photo)

2017 Medical Summary

Denali mountaineering rangers and rescue patrol volunteers treated 19 patients that met our 'life, limb or eyesight-threatened' threshold. Patients not meeting this treatment guideline are advised to self-treat and evacuate as needed. Here is the breakdown of field diagnoses, and note that some patients were treated for multiple issues, resulting in a higher number of diagnoses than patients:

  • Traumatic Injury – 7 cases
  • Frostbite – 5 cases
  • Medical (cardiac) – 2 cases
  • Medical (abdominal) – 2 cases
  • Hypothermia – 2 cases
  • High Altitude Cerebral Edema – 1 case
  • High Altitude Pulmonary Edema – 1 case
  • Snow Blindness – 1 case
Of the patients treated, 12 were independent climbers, 5 were guides or their clients, and 2 were NPS volunteers. The patients treated by our teams exhibited 13 traumatic injuries (including 5 cases of frostbite) and 7 medical complaints. Fourteen of the patients were treated at 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress; three patients were treated at 7,200-foot basecamp; one was treated at 17,200-foot high camp; and one was treated at 11,200-foot camp.

Unfortunately, there was one fatality in the Alaska Range this season. This fatality likely resulted from high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and hypothermia based on reports from expedition teammates and rescuers on scene at high camp. Ultimately, fourteen patients required helicopter evacuation from the mountain, while five were able to self-evacuate after stabilization by our medical providers.
Two hands with frostbite injuries
NPS Photo (Coady)
The patient care reports from our last climbing season describe ailments and injuries often associated with mountaineering and alpine climbing in the Alaska Range. Many of these medical and traumatic issues are preventable with prudent decision-making and a reasonable ascent profile during climbing expeditions. Additional information on the prevention, recognition, and treatment of common mountain medicine maladies can be found online in our Denali mountaineering planning tools.
Stay tuned for:
  • New Routes and Significant Climbs of 2017

Last updated: May 17, 2018

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755


(907) 683-9532
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