Stories from the summits

Deaths in the mountains most commonly result from underestimating the risks. Sharing your experience might just save someone else's life. Click here to submit your account of any altitude illness.

Death on Denali

The following account is from Wilson et al "Death on Denali", Western Journal of Medicine 128:471-476.

"An 18-year-old youth ascended the Jungfrau, 4,158 m, in Switzerland. He noted mild altitude sickness including headache during a night at the top. Later in the same year he went from Texas to Colorado to ski at 3,600 m elevation. After one day of skiing, intense headache, cough, dyspnea, cyanosis and vomiting developed. He had no fever. He descended by car to 1,800 m elevation and immediately recovered. During the next five years he climbed exten- sively in the continental United States and Canada to 4,350 m elevation, climbed in Mexico to above 5,285 m three times, and ascended many European peaks including the Matterhom, 4,477 m, without illness.

At age 24 in 1976 he became ill at 5,000 m elevation after climbing up onto the steep West Buttress of Denali. He was given furosemide, 40 mg intravenously, by a physician in the party but his condition deteriorated rapidly. Oxygen bottles were not available. He was lowered the next day to 4,330 m, was given more furosemide, but died with bubbling rales in his chest and bloody froth at his lips two hours after reaching the lower camp. At autopsy the brain was very heavy, weighing 1,750 grams. It was severely edematous [full of fluid]. Lungs weighed 1,830 grams together and were filled with fluid. Autopsy findings were consistent with HACE and HAPE."