Near Death on Mt. McKinley

Cooking in tents Carbon Monoxide testing

That was the last thing we needed to deal with.  We had just survived several avalanches while climbing the near 1,200 ft. near vertical ice wall crux of the Western Rib of 20,320 ft high Mt. McKinley.  The native population had name it “Denali- The Great One” for good reason.

Denali is near the arctic circle, which creates to interesting situations, 1. It is the coldest mountain earth.  We have experienced effective temperatures of minus -125° F while climbing.   2. Since the earths atmosphere is thinner at the north and south poles, due to the Coriolis force.   Which essentially is the rotation of the earth cause the atmosphere to collect at the equator, and thins it at the poles.  Effectively making Mt. McKinley a 23,000 ft. to 24,000 ft. high peak.

The crux is at an elevation of about thirteen to fourteen thousand feet.  It is a near vertical wall of ice that is about 1,200 feet long.  At times it is a sheet of glaring smooth ice, other times it is covered with snow.  If the snow arrives wet and warm there is a good chance it will freeze to the ice, helping prevent it from avalanching, but that is often not the case.

I was fixing ropes for our team to haul our food and gear up.  This expedition would end up being five weeks long, thus food and equipment can be a lot of bulk and weight.  Climbers evaluate the risks and climb accordingly.  If we did otherwise, we would never get from point A to Point B.  I lead on an 8mm rope a hundred and six five feet long, above our belay.  I did not put in any anchors as I climbed.

I was reaching a place to set up a belay I heard a wurring sound above me.  I looked up to see a mass of snow headed for me.  I did some seriously quick stepping, with the speed only adrenaline can provided, to the side of the couloir (chute).  Whew, it missed me, later I found out a solo climber had kick off the slab avalanche.  Later some Swiss climbers were not so lucky.  An avalanche caught one of them and carried him to the bottom of the crux.

Load hauling had been grueling,  and we were beat.  We cut out a platform at the top and set up a camp and settle in to spend the night.  Every night we tank up on fluids, which means melting snow and ice.  There were four of us, two per tent, when I heard a cry for help.  Rather than retell the story I have included a copy of the original article below.

Carbon Monoxide, the silent killer.  “Did you know that the CO (Carbon Monoxide) molecule adheres to hemoglobin (our red blood cells) about 200 times better than oxygen?”  What that means is if you are sitting in a tent, barn, house, garage, . . . and there is oxygen (O2) molecules and CO molecules floating around in the air, our red blood cells will hang onto the poisonous CO molecules rather than the oxygen!  So then when it circulates through our lungs, the oxygen molecule will not attach to the red blood cell, and thus there is limited delivery of O2 to our organs and such.

CO (Carbon Monoxide) is tasteless, orderless, colorless, . . . that is why it is called the silent killer.  A person being overcome by CO often has a headache, is tired, may be nauseous, or . . and wants to sleep.  The problem is you don’t wake up.

We were all familiar with CO poisoning, but it can sneak up on us.  We had just finished climbing a 1,200 Ice Coulior, which is considered the crux of the Western Rib on 20,320 foot high Mount McKinley (Denali).  We were pretty beat, but we got lucky, we almost lost our team Doctor.

Anyway, we all were quite tired so it was easy to over look things.   The Team Doctor and Deputy Leader were in other tent cooking and … well the details are in the article below.

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CO kills many people in day to day life, and in mountaineer too.   After this life and death event I started wondering if there was a difference in the amount of CO that different climbing and backpacking stoves put out.  It seemed to make sense that there would be, just by looking at the color of the flame.  This is important to know, because we often cook in our tents, because of the weather, winds, and such make it impractical to do otherwise.

Sometimes recognizing symptoms of CO is not easy.  One classic symptom is your skin becomes red.  Well as mountaineers, sun exposure makes our skin red, so it is easy to overlook that one.  What made us recognize the situation was the change in their behavior.   Listening to them talk (situational awareness) and behavior led me to believe something was wrong, plus I ended up hearing the Deputy leader yell for help.  One thing led to another, and we figured it out.

Yes, there was a big difference in stove CO output . . .

Stoves that put out a blow torch sound, seem to burn the CO molecule up more completely.  The quiet Coleman or whisperlite (MSR) put out almost four times as much CO as a SEVA, or MSR Multi-fuel, the latter two both sound like blow touches so that is likely why they burn up the CO better than the more quiet stoves do.

The type of fuel seemed to make a difference too.  Butane/Propane seem to put out less CO as well.   Check out the article below for the details.  After this was published I noticed a number of other articles being published, so it is worthwhile to read them as well.

Something anyone who cooks inside a tent should consider.