Rescue teams attempting to reach 2 hypothermic climbers stranded near Denali’s summit

a snowy mountain
The Denali Park Road curls around a mountainside near the Polychrome Overlook on Sunday, May 3, 2020. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

Update, 8:15 a.m. Thursday:

Cloud cover around Denali prevented further flights to rescue two climbers stranded near the mountain’s summit since early Tuesday.

Denali National Park and Preserve spokesman Paul Ollig said crews were still awaiting a break in the clouds Thursday morning to launch another flight to the climbers just below the mountain’s summit.

Original story:

Multiple rescue agencies were working Wednesday to reach two climbers stranded for more than a day near Denali’s summit, after rescuing three other climbers suffering from severe frostbite.

Denali National Park and Preserve spokesman Paul Ollig said Wednesday afternoon that the two climbers were at a flat spot on the mountain called the “Football Field,” at an elevation of 19,600 feet.

According to a statement from the park, a team of three climbers atop the 20,310-foot peak sent an SOS signal from an InReach satellite device at about 1 a.m. Tuesday saying they were hypothermic and unable to descend.

“Rangers maintained two-way communications with the team until approximately 3:30 a.m., when the team texted that they planned to descend to the ‘Football Field,’” park officials said in the statement. “Rangers did not hear back from the team after that transmission, nor did the location of the device change.”

The Alaska Air National Guard was called in to help with the search Tuesday morning, due to cloud cover that kept the park’s high-altitude helicopter from reaching the mountain. An HC-130 search plane crew spotted two of the climbers between 19,000 and 20,000 feet, with a guide on the mountain finding the third climber near Zebra Rocks at 18,600 feet.

According to the park, a separate pair of climbers suffering from frostbite were being treated by Park Service patrol members at the mountain’s 14,200-foot camp. The helicopter crew tried to reach the summiters at about 5 p.m. Tuesday, but instead landed at the camp and rescued the two climbers there. Both were flown to Talkeetna, with one transferred to a LifeMed air ambulance for further care.

The Park Service helicopter made a second attempt to reach the summiters at 9 p.m. Tuesday, but was again unsuccessful.

“By that point, one of the three climbers had made their way down to the 17,200-foot high camp with severe frostbite and hypothermia,” park officials said. “A guided party initially assisted the patient until transferring care to an NPS ground team who had ascended to high camp from 14,200-feet to support the rescue effort.”

That climber was helicoptered to Talkeetna at about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday night and also transferred to LifeMed, according to the statement.

“Meanwhile, an experienced expedition guide on the upper mountain had diverted significant time to assist and provide care to the two non-ambulatory climbers at the Football Field (19,600 feet),” park officials wrote. “However, when the clouds moved back in late Tuesday night, the guide was forced to return to the 17,200-foot high camp for his own safety and for the safety of his team.”

Crews have been waiting for another break in the weather Wednesday to make another attempt at reaching the stranded climbers.

Ollig said Wednesday afternoon that details were still coming in about how both groups of climbers ended up in distress, as well as what condition the stranded climbers were in when the guide left them Tuesday.

He also said that high-altitude flight issues further hampered Tuesday’s rescue efforts for the summiters, noting that the helicopter was fitted with a short-haul rescue basket when it tried to reach the “Football Field.”

“Due to weight restrictions, we can’t do a short haul at that high of an elevation with either a spotter or an attendant ranger on the end of the line,” he said. “So the patients need to be either ambulatory or have assistance on the ground.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Chris here.

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