Stuck in Snow Cave, Two Hypothermic Denali Climbers Await Rescue

Denali park rangers sprang into action when several mountaineers climbed into dangerous conditions early this week.

Five climbers in two parties required rescues on Tuesday, May 28, suffering from cold-related injuries and immobility. By now, three have been rescued — but two men are still stranded and exposed, stuck in a snow cave high on Denali.

The action began at 1:00 am on Tuesday, when park rangers began fielding Garmin InReach messages from three climbers stuck on Denali’s 6,190m summit. Hypothermic and immobile, the team maintained contact with the rangers until approximately 3:30 am, according to an National Park Service (NPS) press release.

They told rangers they planned to descend to the Football Field — a flat area about 200m below the summit — but then their communication went dark. Rangers received no further updates, nor did the Garmin’s location change. Further updates confirmed the climbers were three Malaysian men, aged 36, 47, and 48.

Clouds stall rescue

The summit remained socked in by clouds throughout Tuesday morning, preventing access by the park’s high-altitude helicopter. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) stepped in, and an Alaska National Guard HC-130J combat rescue plane scrambled toward the imperiled climbers.

The crew ultimately spotted the two younger climbers near the altitude of the Football Field, per the NPS, but “stagnant cloud layers” still obstructed a helicopter rescue.

a clouded mountain peak

Clouds over Denali. Photo: Giant Ginko via Flickr


Though the two climbers had to wait for better aviation weather, a mountaineering guide did find their partner at Zebra Rocks several hundred meters below.

Finally, at 5:00 pm, the clouds began to break. An NPS pilot and mountaineering ranger took off in an agency helicopter from Talkeetna, bound for the summit. But it was still unreachable, and in the end, they landed at Camp 3 at 4,328m.

There, they assisted in a second, unrelated rescue of two other climbers stuck in the Camp 3 medical tent with frostbite. The helicopter team evacuated both to Talkeetna. One proceeded to a LifeMed air ambulance for “advanced care.”

One down, two to go

The NPS helicopter team then flew back to the mountain. By 9:00 pm, the Zebra Rocks climber had managed to descend to Denali High Camp at 5,242m with help from a separate guided party.

File photo of Denali high camp. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Landing in camp, the pilot and ranger found the 48-year-old suffering from “severe frostbite and hypothermia.” They successfully evacuated the patient to Talkeetna.

Meanwhile, an expedition guide had located the two climbers still stranded at the Football Field. They could no longer walk, and the NPS said the guide committed “significant time to assist and provide care” for them before worsening conditions forced the guide to retreat to High Camp.

Today, NPS rescuers continued to wait, as stiff winds battered the peak. Neither ground nor air teams could reach the two climbers on the Football Field. Their last satellite messages on Wednesday night indicated their device was almost dead, and they’re now holed up in a “crude” snow cave.

The ordeal follows what the NPS called an “extended” summit push by the Malaysians. The rescue effort alone has eclipsed 60 hours.

Memorial Day, the last Monday of May, signals the busiest two weeks of the Denali climbing season, according to the NPS. Currently, 506 climbers are active on the mountain, following another 117 earlier in the season. The NPS calculates the season summit rate at 15%.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.