Denali National Park, Alaska

Search and Rescue (SAR) emergencies regarding mountain rescue in Denali National Park and Preserve:

First and foremost in SAR the unconditional rule is “that rescuer safety will continually trump every situation even if loss of life will occur if the rescue doesn’t happen.”

This is an unforgiving order to implement especially when the victim involved is recognized or known by the rescuers.  SAR teams throughout the world sometimes struggle with scenarios involving identified victims because the established risk assessment is often waived.

I would tell you that the most of the rescues on Denali in my past 18 years of experience typically involve summit attempts that have gone bad.  The majority of expeditions normally leave late morning averaging around 8-12 hours in length for the round trip when weather and conditions allow.

The calls for help are generally made by climbers using the small and light 5Watt family Band Radios, known as the “Family Radio Service” (FRS) which had replaced the CB’s on Denali.   They (climbers) typically notify the high camp at 17,200 feet or the 14,200-foot ranger camp.  Also, sometimes climbers notify the basecamp manager at the Kahiltna Air Strip who will then check-in with the rangers at the 7,200 base camp.

The next step in the call for help will be to the Talkeetna Ranger Station to the NPS Mountaineering Ranger on Duty.  That person will then notify the rest of the Incident Command Staff depending on how serious the accident or situation is and if there is going to be an aviation component.

The incidents vary but many involve someone with frostbite, HAPE or HACE, trauma from a fall or a call from a party saying there is a expedition overdue from the summit attempt.  We typically have good communication with the climbers as many have either radios or cell phones and even some have satellite phones.

We try to sort out the rescue and typically there are many things going on with many tasks including but not limited to getting current and forecasted weather, emergency contact information for injured party, notification of the following: NPS helicopter manager and pilot, Rescue Coordination Center, Alaska State Troopers, Life Flight, and the air taxi that flew the expedition to the glacier.  If there is a fatality, we would notify the Alaska State Medical Examiner for permission to move the body and the Superintendent of the Denali National Park and Preserve regardless of what time it is.

Once we decide what our options are and we have done a careful and comprehensive risk assessment for the plan we would then move forward with the rescue.  Normally this would take about 30 minutes to one hour depending on how many staff we have working on the incident.  If we are using an aviation component such as the high altitude rescue helicopter, we would do a pre-briefing with the pilot and also a radio briefing with the on scene field operation chief to coordinate and supervise the patient packaging and loading.

I will try to outline a normal incident that we deal with every year.  A returning party of three climbers are descending Denali Pass at 18,200 on the West Buttress Route with one climber stumbling from altitude sickness.   The sick climber falls and pulls the other two off their feet and they slide for 800 feet because they can’t self-arrest.  The Mountaineering patrol and some guides at the 17,200-foot camp witness the fall and climb up to the injured party.  The ranger calls down to the 14,200-foot camp and notifies the ranger on duty.  That ranger calls the ranger on duty in Talkeetna and gives all the information known including names, current weather, patient assessment, and if there is a plan.  If the patrol at 17,200 can deal with the situation without aviation support to get the injured down to the 14,200-foot camp then they will supervise and manage their own rescue.  If they need a helicopter to pick-up the injured at the scene of the accident then the rescue will be coordinated from Talkeetna by the on duty incident commander.

It really depends on how serious the injuries are because as if they are life threatening, we will look at the incident much different than if it was frostbite or a sprained knee.  The most critical thing that will make or break a successful rescue other then weather is good communication.  We do very few searches on Denali and most of the rescues we do are patient transports from the 14,200-foot camp as most of the time the patrols can lower the injured to the camp.

The professional guides on Denali along with the ranger patrols make rescue much safer and very efficient in dealing with the many scenarios each year.  I think without this factor it would be a much different outcome.
— Daryl Miller, former Chief Mountaineering Ranger at Denali National Park

The following link outlines the specific requirements of park rangers  in order to assist in an emergency situation:

Protocols for Mountaineering Rangers_Denali

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