Annual Mountaineering Summary: 2020
Annual Mountaineering Summary: 2021
A special thank you to the 22 mountaineering Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP's) who teamed up with Denali rangers to staff the mountain camps in 2021. It was a heavy lift, both literally and figuratively, as the park hosted a signficantly smaller VIP crew overall due to COVID-related precautions.
Statistics compiled by Registration Supervisor Debbie Reiswig
(April 2) Three private planes landed on the Ruth Glacier below Mount Dickey, but were unable to depart due to a quickly advancing snowstorm. A ground rescue team originating from the Sheldon Mountain House descended the glacier, retrieved all five aviators and passengers, and guided them back to the Mountain House on skis. When the storm subsided three days later, all flew out to Talkeetna on an air taxi flight. There was no damage to any of the grounded aircraft and all three were eventually flown out of the Alaska Range with no further incident.
(May 1) An independent climber on the East Buttress of Denali began suffering symptoms of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and was only ambulatory with assistance from teammates. After 36 hours with no improvement and no available medications for treatment, the team activated the SOS function on their InReach device. The sick climber was evacuated by helicopter from near the team’s camp at approximately 14,200 feet on the East Buttress.
Fatal Crevasse Fall
(May 3) One member of two-person, unroped ski mountaineering team on the South Spur of the Eldridge Glacier skied over a crevasse hidden by a large snow bridge. The snow bridge collapsed, resulting in a 100-foot fall. The uninjured teammate requested rescue assistance via an InReach device. Mountaineering rangers flew to the accident site and determined that the skier had died in the crevasse fall. After the surviving teammate was flown to Talkeetna via the park helicopter, the mountaineering rangers recovered the deceased skier’s remains.
Fatal Ice Fall
(May 13) One climber was killed and another injured by an ice fall avalanche on the approach to a climb of the West Face of Reality Ridge. After confirming the status of his partner, the surviving climber used his InReach device to initiate a helicopter rescue. Once the survivor was treated for injuries and evacuated, rangers returned to accident site. The deceased climber was excavated from the debris by a mountaineering ranger clipped to a helicopter short-haul line due to overhead serac hazard.
(May 17) An independent climber suffered frostbite on summit day and subsequently requested medical assistance at the 14,200-foot camp on Denali’s West Buttress. Rangers assessed and treated three fingers and three toes with frostbite. The patient was unable to get the cold-injured foot back into a ski boot, necessitating a helicopter evacuation from 14,200-foot camp to Talkeetna.
(May 22) Two independent climbers ascended the West Buttress fixed lines in windy conditions with the intent of reaching High Camp at 17,200 feet. After seven hours of climbing in high winds, they decided to set up camp on the ridge at 16,200 feet. The team lost their tent and unsecured packs in the windstorm and returned to the 14,200-foot camp seeking ranger assistance. One of the team members was treated for frostbite to four fingers. Due to the team’s inability to safely descend the mountain without the requisite equipment, they were evacuated by the park helicopter to Basecamp. The packs were later recovered by NPS patrol volunteers.
(May 24) An unroped, independent climber fell over 1,000 vertical feet down the slope from Denali Pass into the basin below. The fall was witnessed by a guide at High Camp, who notified rangers at 14,200 feet, initiating a rescue. The climber was evacuated to Talkeetna by helicopter with immediate and life-threatening injuries, then transferred to an air ambulance. After the incident, the three climbers that were travelling with the fallen climber requested rescue assistance for themselves, however they were able to descend from to High Camp on their own.
(May 25) A client on a guided expedition was evacuated via helicopter from the 17,200-foot High Camp on the West Buttress of Denali after developing HAPE on ascent.
Accidental InReach Activation
(May 29) Rangers were notified of an SOS activation in the vicinity of the 11,000-foot camp on Denali’s West Buttress. Ranger patrols at three separate locations (14,200 feet, 7,800 feet, and 7,200 feet) were notified and each attempted to reach the owner of the device on FRS radio with no response. Subsequent contact with the InReach owner’s spouse indicated the device owner was on a guided expedition camped at 11,000 feet. Further attempts were made to raise the team on their private FRS channel, again with no response. At approximately 2:00 AM, the InReach owner responded to the Alaska Regional Communication Center stating that there was no emergency, and that the unit was unintentionally activated.
(May 29) An independent climber was evacuated from the 14,200-foot camp on Denali after displaying signs and symptoms of HAPE following a rapid (3 day) ascent up the mountain.
(May 29) A client on a guided expedition injured their back while putting on mountaineering boots at the 14,200-foot camp. The injured climber was evacuated via helicopter to prevent further back injury and due to the patient’s inability to self-arrest, stop a crevasse fall, or safely descend.
(May 31) An independent climber at the 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress requested medical assistance from rangers due to frostbite on two toes and three fingers suffered while moving up from the 11,000-foot camp. After receiving medical treatment for the cold injuries, the climber descended to Basecamp on his own.
(May 31) An independent climber fell 150 to 200 meters at approximately 17,400 feet on the traverse from Denali Pass to High Camp. Mountain guides who observed the fall assisted the disoriented climber back to camp, providing food and water. The climber’s condition improved overnight, and he was able to descend safely under his own power.
(June 3) A client on a guided expedition was reported to have HAPE at the 17,200-foot High Camp. The climber was administered oxygen and medication, however they remained non-ambulatory. When weather allowed, the patient was evacuated by the park helicopter and transferred to a ground ambulance in Talkeetna.
(June 7) An independent climber suffered a fall resulting in a chest injury while descending the fixed lines on the West Buttress. Rangers responded to the scene and assisted the climber back to the 14,200-foot ranger camp, where he remained in the medical tent until weather allowed for a helicopter evacuation on June 12.
(June 12) A climber on a private expedition was evacuated via short-haul basket from 19,500 feet on Denali after developing high altitude cerebral and pulmonary edema (HACE/HAPE) while ascending the Upper West Rib route with five teammates. Upon air evacuation to Talkeetna, the patient was transferred to a ground ambulance for further care.
(June 11) A guide reported that a client exposed his hands during a summit attempt resulting in frostbite on nine digits. The cold injuries ranged from superficial to deep; blebs were drained, bandaged, and re-warmed in the field with assistance from medics on a military team camped at 17,200 feet. As the injuries inhibiting a safe descent, the guide requested a helicopter evacuation from High Camp to Talkeetna.
(June 13) On summit day, a client on a guided expedition experienced signs and symptoms of HACE, HAPE, and chest pain at 19,500 feet. One of the guides returned to High Camp with the deteriorating climber, who was subsequently evacuated from 17,200 feet by helicopter and transferred to ground ambulance for further care.
(June 23) A client of a guided expedition was evacuated from the 14,200-foot camp on Denali via park helicopter after developing HAPE while on ascent.
(June 25) A guided team located at 11,200-foot camp requested ranger assistance when one of the guides sustained a back injury while shoveling, rendering him non-ambulatory. After fellow guides monitored the injury and treated it with pain medication for multiple days, the injury did not improve. The guide was evacuated via park helicopter from the 11,200-foot camp.
Acute Abdominal Pain
(June 28) A guide experienced persistent abdominal pain for over three days while at High Camp, including an inability to eat or drink. As the patient was very unsteady on his feet, the decision was made to evacuate him from high camp via the park helicopter.
HACE/HAPE; Knee Injury
(June 30) Two separate guided groups requested assistance from NPS rangers on June 30. A guided group at High Camp had a client present with signs and symptoms of HACE/HAPE, while the second guided group had a client with a knee injury sustained while punching through snow while ascending to the fixed lines. The park helicopter pilot and ranger attendant first flew to High Camp to evacuate the first patient, then down to the 14,200-foot camp for the second patient; after refueling at Basecamp, the patients were flown to Talkeetna.
(June 30) An independent climber requested assistance from rangers at the 17,200-foot High Camp due to a back injury sustained while attempting to put on crampons. A ranger assessment in camp confirmed the disability would make self-evacuation unsafe, so a helicopter evacuation was initiated. The patient’s climbing partner, his 12-year-old son, accompanied the patient on the helicopter due to his young age.
During the 2021 climbing season, Denali mountaineering rangers and patrol volunteers treated a total of 25 patients that met our life, limb or eyesight-threatened threshold. Patients not meeting this treatment guideline are advised to self-treat and evacuate. The following list provides a breakdown of the field diagnoses from this past rescue season:
Of the patients treated, 14 were independent climbers or park visitors. Ten patients were members of guided expeditions, including both guides and clients. One was an agency assist for Alaska State Troopers in Denali State Park. The patients treated by our teams exhibited a total of 15 traumatic injuries (including 5 cases of frostbite) and 11 medical complaints. Nine of these patients were treated at 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress route, 8 were treated at 17,200-foot base camp, 1 was treated at 19,500 feet, 1 was treated at 11,200-foot camp, and 4 were treated in other areas of the Alaska Range. In total, 23 of these patients required helicopter evacuation from Denali National Park and 1 patient was able to self-evacuate after initial assessment and stabilization by guides at the 17,200-foot camp. One patient was evacuated by helicopter from Denali State Park.
There were two fatalities this season. One fatality occurred due to injuries sustained from an un-roped crevasse fall on the Eldridge Glacier. The second fatality was due to injuries sustained from an ice fall avalanche on the approach to climb on the West Face of Reality Ridge.
The patient care reports from this past climbing season describe ailments commonly associated with mountaineering in the Alaska Range. Many of these medical illnesses and traumatic injuries are preventable with prudent decision-making and a reasonable ascent profile during climbing expeditions.
Annual Mountaineering Summary: 2022
Rangers were grateful for a return to pre-pandemic levels of volunteerism on Denali, with 37 mountaineering Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP's) contributing their passion and expertise to mountaineering operations in 2022.
Fatal Fall (April 30) A solo climber on the first expedition of the 2022 season was reported overdue for a satellite phone check-in by a concerned friend. After multiple days of aerial searching on the upper mountain, the climber’s body was spotted below Denali Pass in the 17,200-foot basin. The remains were recovered at a later date.
Avalanche (May 9) Two independent climbers were swept down the Chicken Couloir on the West Rib route of Denali. Both were rescued by the NPS helicopter that evening with non-life-threatening injuries and transferred to a ground ambulance in Talkeetna.
Cardiac (May 14) A client on a guided expedition was evacuated from the 7,800-foot camp via park helicopter and transferred to an air ambulance due to a suspected cardiac event.
High Altitude Retinal Hemorrhage (May 15) A client on a guided trip lost vision in his left eye while doing a carry from 11,000 to 12,000 feet. The patient was evacuated via park helicopter to Talkeetna, then transferred to ground ambulance for hospital transport. The patient was diagnosed with a high altitude retinal hemorrhage.
Fatal Crevasse Fall (May 17) One member of a three-person film crew took an un-roped crevasse fall below the North Buttress of Mount Hunter on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna. The fall resulted in full burial and fatal injuries. A team of five rangers and volunteers were able to excavate and recover the climber’s remains from the crevasse.
Kidney Illness (May 20) A client on a guided expedition started experiencing acute abdominal pain and blood in his urine. The climber was evacuated by the park helicopter from the team’s camp at 10,000 feet.
Frostbite (May 24) A ranger patrol at the 14,200-foot camp observed a team of two move very slowly from the base of the fixed lines back to camp at 14,200 feet. Once in camp, the injured climber was escorted to the NPS medical tent with full thickness frostbite on his left hand and right ear. The tissue was re-warmed overnight and the patient was evacuated the next day via park helicopter.
False InReach (May 26) Rangers at the 14,200 foot camp were notified of an InReach activation near camp went to investigate the coordinates, but did not find any climbers in distress. The InReach pings continued to move towards Windy Corner and then continued down to 11,000 camp. After determining it was an accidental activation, the independent party was located by a guide at 11,000 feet, and the climber was told to cancel the SOS on the InReach device.
Lipoma (May 28) A guide was suffering from acute back pain that had started at 11,000 feet, but intensified at high camp. An exam revealed an inflamed lipoma next to the patient’s spine. When it was determined the patient could not descend from high camp on his own accord, he was evacuated via park helicopter back to Talkeetna.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) (May 29) A client on a guided expedition initially developed a cough on the upper mountain, but after summiting the mountain, his condition deteriorated into high altitude pulmonary edema. The client was evacuated via park helicopter from high camp the following day.
Frostbite (May 31) After a summit push on a windy day, an independent climber noticed the tips of all ten fingers were white and ‘wooden’ feeling after getting back to high camp late at night. The following morning, he sought assistance from an NPS patrol at high camp with blebs on all ten fingers. The climber was evacuated from 17,200-foot camp via park helicopter.
Suspected Stroke (June 20) A guide called for assistance when a client showed signs and symptoms of stroke, including one-sided weakness, slurred speech, and facial droop. The NPS patrol at the 14,200-foot camp sent a ground team to the patient at 15,000 feet at the base of the fixed lines. Due to the steep terrain on scene, a ‘toe-in’ helicopter evacuation was performed. The patient was flown direct to Mat-Su Regional Hospital for immediate care.
Medical Fatality (June 3) A client on a guided expedition collapsed near 19,000 feet on the West Buttress route. When the team guides reached him, the climber was unresponsive and pulseless, so they initiated CPR. After 30 minutes with no response, CPR was suspended and the patient was pronounced deceased. The climber’s remains were recovered via the park helicopter using a short-haul rescue basket, with the assistance of the team’s guides.
HAPE/COVID-19 (June 8) A client presenting with extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and a consistent cough on a guided expedition was escorted by guides to the 14,200-foot ranger camp. A medical assessment was performed by the NPS patrol, with two COVID-19 tests returning positive results. The assessment also indicated the patient was presenting with mild HAPE. An NPS tent was provided to the team for the patient to isolate and be monitored overnight by the patient’s guides. When the patient did not improve, the decision was made to evacuate the patient.H
igh Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) / Frostbite (June 10) A team of two independent climbers triggered an SOS via InReach, requesting help descending from Denali Pass to high camp after an exhausting 24-hour summit push. As the nearest NPS ranger patrol had just begun their ascent to high camp, a team of guides camped at 17,200 feet responded and assisted the exhausted team down to camp and got them settled in a tent. By that point, the NPS patrol had arrived in high camp and performed a patient assessment indicating extreme fatigue, altered mental status, ataxia, headache, and minor frostbite to 5 fingers. The patrol provided initial treatment until the patient was evacuated from high camp in the park helicopter.
Consecutive Climbing Falls (June 11) A skier on an independent team fell just below the summit at 19,500 feet, sustaining a possible head injury. Weather prevented the NPS helicopter from launching that night. A guide who witnessed the fall loaned the team survival gear (bivy sack, stove) to use while awaiting rescue. Later that evening, the team decided to attempt a descent on their own. Impaired from the earlier fall and prolonged period at high elevation, the same injured individual fell once again while descending from Denali Pass to high camp, sustaining further serious injuries. A ranger patrol ascended to the patient to provide medical care on scene. Meanwhile, with assistance from an Air National Guard C-130 crew providing weather observations, the NPS helicopter pilot was able to fly to high camp and evacuate the injured skier along with a volunteer paramedic from the NPS patrol. The patient was transferred to an air ambulance in Talkeetna for further care.
Gastrointestinal Illness (June 15) A guide was camped for several days at the Polo Field near 12,500-feet with severe GI distress. Based on her weakened condition and inability to keep food or water down, the patient was evacuated via park helicopter and released to her guide company’s care.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema / Possible Stroke (June 16) An independent climber was experiencing signs and symptoms of HACE and possible stroke at Washburn’s Thumb at 16,700-feet, including facial droop, arm drift, and slurred speech. The climber was also ataxic and non-ambulatory. The patient was evacuated by short-haul basket to the 7,200-foot basecamp, then flown internally in the park helicopter to Talkeetna, then transferred to an air ambulance.
Knee Injury (June 20) A client on a guided expedition injured her knee at the bottom of the fixed lines while plunge stepping downhill in soft snow. The NPS ranger patrol at 14,200 feet assessed her condition over the next couple days. Based on her unstable knee and medical history, it was determined that the climber would be unable to walk down safely carrying a heavy pack and sled. The patient was evacuated by park helicopter to Talkeetna.
HAPE (June 24) A client on a guided expedition began to experience signs and symptoms of HAPE at 19,000 feet on summit day. One of the trip guides descended to the 17,200-foot camp with the sick climber, at which point they decided to continue down to the 14,200-foot camp. When they reached Washburn’s Thumb on the descent, the patient became slightly disoriented and ataxic. The guide alerted the NPS team at 14,200-foot camp, who mobilized two patrol members and an available guide from another company. Meanwhile, the guide and sick climber continued their short-roped descent down the fixed lines, meeting up with the ground team at the bottom of the fixed lines. Once the patient was treated with oxygen and medications, the NPS ground team lowered the patient three rope lengths in the rescue litter, then skied the patient down to the 14,200-foot camp. The climber received further treatment at 14,200-foot camp, then evacuated via park helicopter to Talkeetna.
HAPE (June 30) A client on a guided expedition was experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness at the 14,200-foot camp, including cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Medical volunteers on the NPS patrol found all vital signs within normal limits with the notable exception of oxygen saturation. Even after the patient was treated with supplemental oxygen, when taken off O2, his saturation was ranging in the 50’s when seated, dropping to the 30’s when walking. The decision was made to evacuate the patient that evening.
During the 2022 climbing season, Denali mountaineering rangers and patrol volunteers treated a total of 23 patients that met our life, limb or eyesight-threatened threshold. Patients not meeting this treatment guideline are advised to self-treat and evacuate. The following list provides a breakdown of the diagnoses from this past rescue season:
Of the patients treated, 11 were independent climbers or park visitors. 12 were guides or their clients. This was unusual, as over the last 11 years, guided trips account for about a quarter of major SARs. The patients treated by our teams exhibited a total of 12 traumatic injuries (including 4 cases of frostbite) and 7 medical complaints. 7 of these patients were treated at 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress route, 7 were treated at 17,200-foot base camp, 2 were treated at 11,200’ camp, 1 at 7,800’, and the remaining 5 from the West Buttress occurred at various elevations between camps. We responded to 2 patients and 1 recovery in other areas of the Alaska Range. In total, 22 of these patients required helicopter evacuation from Denali National Park. One patient was evacuated by ground from the 14,200’ base camp. One major SAR was over a false InReach SOS that resulted in the helicopter being put on standby, with no patients.
There were three fatalities this season. One fatality occurred when a solo climber was reported overdue and was found below Denali Pass, presumably after a fall. The second fatality was due to injuries sustained from an unroped crevasse fall by a film crew in the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna. The final fatality was a guided client at 19,000’ who most likely experienced sudden cardiac arrest.
The patient care reports from this past climbing season describe ailments commonly associated with mountaineering in the Alaska Range. Many of these medical illnesses and traumatic injuries are preventable with prudent decision-making and a reasonable ascent profile during climbing expeditions. Additional information regarding the prevention, recognition, and treatment of common mountain medicine maladies can be found online in the Denali mountaineering handbook:
Last updated: May 4, 2023