A 66-Year-Old Climber Dies on Denali: What Went Wrong

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When you’re in the remote wilderness, even the most minor illnesses and injuries can rapidly morph into matters of life and death. When a climber fell ill between 18,400 and 19,000 feet on the highest peak in North America on Tuesday, a descent to camp and a high-altitude rescue was not enough to save his life.

Masayuki Ikeda was part of a four-person climbing team attempting to reach the summit of Denali in Alaska. He became ill while ascending the West Buttress route, which is the easiest and most common route on the mountain for amateur climbers — more than 90 percent of climbers use this route. Additionally, it is the only route that allows a helicopter to access base camp. But just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean that it’s controllable. No matter where climbers are on Denali, they are exposed to the mountain’s harsh conditions. Unstable weather causes temperatures to routinely fall to -40 degrees and wind speeds pick up rapidly. That — along with the extremely high altitude — makes for unforgiving terrain and contributes to the bleak summit rate of 52 percent.

After Ikeda became ill, a descending team attempted to assist the 66-year-old climber and continued to a camp at 17,200 feet, where they used a satellite phone to call rescue and park officials. A high-altitude helicopter was able to fly Ikeda in a basket from 18,400 feet to 14,200 feet, where he was brought into the helicopter before being flown to base camp at 7,200 feet. There, resuscitation efforts failed, and Ikeda was pronounced dead, of unknown causes.

While causes of Ikeda’s death are unknown, the chances of falling ill in high alpine climates are high. According to a study conducted by neurologist Nicolás Fayed and published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, climbers experience serious altitude sickness and suffer lasting brain damage from hypoxia than most realize.

Fayed and his colleagues performed MRI brain scans on 35 climbers (12 professionals and 23 amateurs) who had returned from high-altitude expeditions. Thirteen subjects had attempted Everest, and each of them tested positive for brain damage. Additionally, many climbers of lesser peaks showed brain damage, and had returned unaware that they had injured their brain. Climbers of high mountains, whether weekend warrior or high-altitude professional, face the same risk of returning home from high peaks with injuries sustained to their brain due to oxygen deprivation.

Regardless of age, fitness level, or physiology, no one is immune to hypoxia (lack of oxygen). The first stage of hypoxia is known as acute mountain sickness. This is the altitude sickness many feel on their first few days skiing in Aspen or hiking in Telluride. It's symptomized by headache, insomnia, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. The next (and much more serious) stage is known as HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) and causes brain swelling that is potentially fatal.

HACE causes the walls of blood capillaries to leak at high altitudes. This leaked fluid can cause dangerous swelling of the brain, pressing it against the skull. Additionally, blood becomes concentrated from dehydration and thickened by increased red blood cells at high altitude. This causes clotting, which when paired with hemorrhaging from the capillaries, causes strokes. A climber with HACE may experience amnesia, confusion, ­delusions, emotional disturbance, personality changes, and loss of consciousness.

When rescuers found Ikeda, he was rendered to be suffering from symptoms similar to those who suffer from HACE. "(Ikeda) had an altered mental status and was non-ambulatory," Denali Park spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri said in a statement. An autopsy has been ordered to determine exact causes of Ikeda’s death.