It hasn’t been a good year for climbers attempting to summit Denali. Wind and snow have kept the summit rate at one-in-three. The weather also means higher risk for injuries, especially frostbite, as Phillip Manning at member station KTNA explains.
Currently, there are 1205 climbers registered to attempt Denali. Of those, 263 are on the mountain, and 896 have finished their climbs. There have been 296 summits, making the current summit rate thirty-three percent. Climbing on Mt. Foraker is already done for the year, with six of the twelve attempts ending in a successful summit.
This week, the tale of bad weather on North America’s highest peak continues. On Thursday, about two dozen climbers were busy shoveling more than two feet of fresh snow at base camp. High winds, snow, and narrow weather windows have been the story of climbing season, thus far. One of the dangers that comes along with a windy season is frostbite, as mountaineering ranger Dave Weber explains.
“I think, especially this season, that the high winds that have been associated with these weather events that we’ve had, have contributed to quite a bit of frostbite, much more than normal.”
Frostbite is nasty stuff. A quick web search will yield photos that are not for the weak of stomach. Many people are familiar with what frostbite looks like in superficial stages. The skin in the affected area darkens and generally goes numb. As the frostbite progresses, the skin can turn black. In cases that are caught early, it’s often possible to warm the area back up and avoid permanent damage. Sometimes, though, the exposure to extreme cold and wind lasts longer, meaning that deeper tissue literally begins to freeze up. Dave Weber says that’s when he and other National Park Service Rangers tend to get involved.
“The deeper frostbites, the ones that freeze deeper into the tissue, are the ones that usually people request our help with. We might have to help thaw those digits and those limbs; it’s usually hands and feet that we see the most, sometimes on people’s faces. It’s the deeper, more severe injuries that have potential for actually losing tissue.”
The number of instances of severe frostbite is up from last year. Dave Weber says that climbers headed for Denali are bombarded with messages about frostbite prevention. In temperatures well below zero, even relatively mild winds can contribute to frostbite. Dave Weber says that it doesn’t take much skin exposure under those conditions to put life and, particularly, limb at risk.
“It is so easy, and takes–we hear, just yesterday, stories of people exposing their hands for ten for fifteen seconds and becoming severely frostbitten. And that’s a life-altering injury for some people.”
Dave Weber says that medical treatment of severe frostbite is improving among doctors who specialize in the field, but many cases still result in amputation of the affected digit or limb. While Weber says he has had instances of cold hands and feet, he has never had a case of frostbite himself. He says that many cases of frostbite come about when climbers try to push through, even when the weather is bad. His message to mountaineers is simple:
“No picture up high with a flag is worth losing fingers, losing toes, or losing parts of your body for.”
While climbing season is slowing down, there are still hundreds of climbs to be completed. Thus far, the weather has meant the lowest summit percentage since 1987 in addition to the increase in frostbite cases. Even if every climber on the mountain or yet to depart were to summit, a very unlikely scenario, it would still mean barely getting to fifty-fifty overall.