Pungkas Tri Baruno, 07-07-08

Another climber dies on Mount McKinley
MYSTERY: As with a Friday death, there's no obvious cause.

The second climber in a week died suddenly on a guided trip to Mount McKinley on Monday night, and mountaineers are looking for answers: Why did two seemingly healthy men collapse at or near the top of the big mountain.

Pungkas Tri Baruno, from Jakarta, Indonesia, was 20 years old and apparently fit, one of three young climbers on an expedition connected with the country's national scouting organization. Baruno made it to the 20,320 foot summit Monday and almost back to high camp at 17,200 feet.

He descended the West Buttress route slowly but steadily. The wind picked up, clouds moved in and it began to snow. His guide kept asking him whether he felt nauseous or dizzy. Baruno said he didn't feel sick, according to Todd Rutledge, co-owner of the guiding company, Mountain Trip.

Then, roped to his guide, maybe 15 minutes from camp, Baruno gave out. "I can't go on," he told his guide, then collapsed. The others had gone ahead. His guide radioed for help, then he and other guides spent more than an hour trying to revive Baruno, said the National Park Service. But they couldn't bring him back.

He was the fourth mountaineer to die on Denali this climbing season.

Three days earlier on July 4, 51-year-old James Nasti of the Chicago area collapsed and died just as he reached the summit of North America's tallest peak. He was in good shape, too, a man who had climbed Mount Rainier twice -- middle-aged but with no history of heart trouble, his family said.

"It really seems like a horrible coincidence. We don't know what happened to either of these two climbers, really, but they were both very sudden onsets," Rutledge said.


Like the guide service that led Nasti's climb, Colorado-based Mountain Trip is a long-standing operation with a good safety record and veteran guides, said Maureen McLaughlin, Denali National Park's Talkeetna-based spokeswoman. Mountain Trip has guided on Denali since 1976.

Before Monday, no clients had died on an expedition anywhere in the world, including Mount Everest, Rutledge said.

The guide with Baruno had led six trips up McKinley and last year made it to the top of Everest, Rutledge said. This was his second McKinley climb of the summer.

Neither of the climbers died of altitude sickness -- it just doesn't work that fast -- but maybe the lack of oxygen so high up aggravated an underlying condition, said Dr. Peter Hackett, a Telluride, Colo., emergency room doctor who has spent 30 years studying Denali and the effects of high altitude on climbers. He also is medical adviser to Mountain Trip.

Altitude sickness leads to a state of decreasing consciousness that takes at least 12 hours to be serious enough to kill and usually longer, Hackett said. Most people sickened by the lack of oxygen at high altitude can't keep climbing and must be helped back to camp, or have oxygen delivered to them, he said.

Cardiac arrest is the most likely explanation for the deaths; or perhaps, for the younger man, there may have been a genetic heart condition, aggravated by high altitude, Hackett said.

"There are only a couple of things that cause people to drop dead unless they are hit by a truck or something," Hackett said. "That is, it has to be the heart, or it is has to be a huge hemorrhage in the brain, but even that -- people just don't drop dead, they usually take 20 to 30 minutes to die."

A third possible cause of sudden death is blood clots to the lungs, Hackett said. But neither of these climbers were holed up in a tent for a long period, which can raise the risk of clotting.

"It's very hard to say that these deaths had anything directly to do with high altitude. I wouldn't want people to get the idea that 'oh my God, you are going to climb Denali, you are going to drop dead,' " Hackett said.

Dr. Jennifer Dow, an emergency room physician at Alaska Regional Hospital and medical director for Denali National Park, said Hackett is considered the expert, but that a lack of oxygen at high altitude does strain the body and could have been a factor, even if neither man died directly of altitude sickness.

A death at over 20,000 feet is likely "influenced by altitude," she said.

There's no explanation for two deaths so close together, she said. "It's just random."


An answer should come in the case of Baruno's death. His body is in a secluded spot near the 17,200-foot high camp. The National Park Service will try to recover it today with the high altitude Lama helicopter. Alaska's chief medical examiner plans to determine what killed the young man.

It's considered too risky to try to recover Nasti's body, so much higher up the mountain, McLaughlin said. It takes more power to operate a helicopter at extremely high elevations, which limits the pilot's ability to hover, she said. The Park Service generally doesn't send the helicopter to recover bodies above high camp, where people can tell a pilot about wind conditions, McLaughlin said.

The National Park Service doesn't require climbers to undergo a physical or prove good health to climb the mountain.

Mountain Trip tells clients to build their aerobic power and physical strength. Climbers should be able to run six to eight miles in under an hour. They also need to practice carrying a heavy pack, the company stresses.

The Indonesians' expedition started in mid-June with a six-day seminar on glacier travel, snow camping, crevasse rescue and expedition skills, Rutledge said.

The Indonesians had climbed volcanoes in their country but weren't used to the cold. They bundled in down parkas when other climbers were wearing light wind shirts, Rutledge said.

New boots blistered the feet of climber Zulfa Ahyar, 20, who left the expedition early, before they started the West Buttress ascent. Hartman Nugraha, 25, made it to the top with Baruno.

"You want to know," Rutledge said. "Right now, since we don't have much to work with, it's easy to speculate."

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

Cause of climber's death still unknown

Anchorage Daily News, July 15th, 2008

The investigation is continuing into what caused the sudden death of a 20-year-old climber on Mount McKinley last week, according to the state medical examiner's office.

An autopsy did not confirm a cause of death for Pungkas Baruno, said Ann Potempa, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Social Services, which includes the medical examiner's office.

"There are no conclusive results at this time," she said. Further study needs to be done, she said.

Baruno, of Jakarta, Indonesia, was on a guided expedition connected with the country's scouting organization. He reached the 20,320-foot summit on July 7 and was descending when he collapsed about one-quarter mile from high camp at 17,200 feet. His body was recovered.

Another climber with a different guide service collapsed and died on the mountain three days earlier. James Nasti, 51, had just reached the summit. His body, at such a high elevation, has not been recovered.