Alaska kills

The 2022 climbing season in the Alaska Range is again off to a grim start with the first man up Mount Denali dead and a woman earlier flown out of the range in a Colorado hospital trying to raise funds to save her badly frostbitten toes.

National Park Service officials on Friday identified the dead man as Austrian soloist Matthias Rimml, age 35. His body was spotted below Denali Pass at 18,200 feet.

The grim discovery came almost a year to the day after the 2021 adventure season in the Range started with death of a Colorado skier who plummeted into a crevasse while descending the Eldridge Glacier just east of Denali. 

Trained as a carpenter, Rimml in the early 2000s turned to guiding in the Alps, thus becoming the fourth generation of his family to lead adventures into the Austrian mountains near the Swiss-Italian border, according to his resume, which listed him as a member of the Arlberg Mountain Rescue Service; a certified mountain, ski and canyoning guide, a ski and snowboard instructor, and an authorized avalanche blasting agent.

“My speciality (is) long, technically difficult combined tours,” he wrote. “With over 700,000 metres of altitude in winter, 200,000 metres of altitude in summer, with well over 90,000 kilometers by car and 130 overnight stays in mountain huts or bivouacs per year, I am constantly on the move with my guests in the mountain world.”

He died on vacation in Alaska.

How is not yet know for sure, but the slope between Denali Pass and the 17,200-foot high plateau above the Headwall on the popular West Buttress route to the 20,310-foot summit of North America’s tallest peak has been the site of many deadly falls over the years.

“Thirteen climbers, including Rimml, have died in falls along this traverse (to high camp), the majority occurring on the descent,” Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri reported. “Recovery efforts will not be attempted until an NPS ranger patrol is acclimated to high altitude and able to safely perform the recovery.”

Until that happens, it will not be known if Rimml died in the fall or was injured and succumbed to hypothermia high on the mountain. Temperatures on the peak remain bitterly cold even with spring arriving in much of the rest of Alaska.

Summit temperatures were reported to be pushing near 40 degrees below zero on Friday night and the Saturday forecast predicted a high of but 26 degrees below zero with 20 to 35 mph winds developing toward midday driving the windchill temperature down to 63 degrees below zero.

In such conditions, an injured climber doesn’t have much chance of surviving for long, and Rimml had not been heard from since calling a friend on a satellite phone to report he was just below Denali Pass on Saturday. Radio silence followed for three days before his friend contacted the Park Service and asked for someone to check on Rimml.

He’d left his 14,000-foot camp with food and fuel for 10-days, but the Park Service noted his “strategy was to climb alpine style, or travel fast with relatively light gear.”

It is a strategy that works fine as long as one keeps moving but can present difficulties if a climber is slowed by injury or weather. And the weather in the Alaska Range is often the biggest difficulty mountaineers face.

It earlier this year crippled Colorado’s Anna Pfaff, a 37-year-old nurse and expedition climber sponsored by The North Face.


Anna Pffaf’s feet showing the consequences of cold exposure/Facebook

On April 21, she and climbing partner Priti Wright completed the 4,000-foot Harvard Route up the West Face of Mount Huntington – a dramatic, pyramid shaped peak about eight miles southeast of Denali. 

When the women returned to their base camp, however, Pfaff found her feet in bad shape.

“At that time I noticed my right foot was swollen and whitish in color,” she wrote on her Facebook page, but having dealt with cold feet in the mountains before she was not particularly worried.

“I knew I needed to warm my feet so I kept them protected in my minus-40 degree sleeping bag,” she wrote. “We made some dinner and rehydrated ourselves and I felt my feet improving slightly. That night was one of the coldest nights as was the next day.”

The climbers promptly notified Talkeetna Air Taxi they needed a pickup, but weather moved in making that impossible.

“The following night was even colder and when I woke up in the morning I looked at my feet and the sight almost made me vomit,” Pfaff wrote. “I called to (Wright) to come check them out, and I could see the shock on her face as we looked at the purple colored toes and blisters that had formed.”

The two women finally made it off the mountain on April 23, but the news upon entering an emergency room at an Anchorage hospital was not good.

“They admitted me to the hospital with pain medications even though I was not in pain,” Pfaff wrote. “I was having a roller coster of emotions at this point barely able to wrap my brain around what was going on. I remember them telling me I am going to loose my toes, and I lost my mind.”

Friends promptly arranged for her transfer to the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where the prognosis was somewhat more optimistic, according to her post:

“(They) told us there was nothing to be done but wait and see how my toes would heal.”

She has since returned to Colorado. A GoFundMe page organized by friends to help her raise funds to cover medical expenses says “she’s got a long road to recovery and plans to spend the coming months living near good care in the Front Range of Colorado.”

Alaska is a dangerous playground.



15 replies »

  1. Good article. Rimmls’ death only proves that no matter how good you are, or in what great shape your body is in, when you are mountain climbing, or doing anything else that is dangerous, fate is the hunter. It should teach us to take our lives one day at a time and make the best of it.

  2. It is always important to remember that the only way to avoid a mountaineering incident is to not go to the mountains, for no Orogeny nor the forces of gravity has concerns about a climbers experience level. Which does not mean one should not go to the mountains, but its a fools puppet who thinks their fitness, equipment, clothes or knowledge protects them from the cold wind, rain and snow, not to mention falling rocks. Good summary Craig, sad ya basically wrote the same article a year ago. And I likely left the same comment.

  3. I remember working so hard years ago to make it up to Alaska and get into the range to climb then working equally as hard to make it out of the range alive.

  4. In an earlier, post, I mentioned living on the Lower Yukon for 3 years and how every Fall, someone would try to be the first one to cross the Yukon on a snowmachine and every Spring be the last one to cross the Yukon. It often resulted in tragedy as it has this year with the Mayor of Pilot Station.

    While He likely wasn’t part of the afore mentioned group, the Yukon River is unforgiving at any time of the year.

    May He Rest in Peace and His Family and Friends find solace in Loving Memories.

  5. The park service said it would take up to 2 weeks to acclimatize to the 18,000 level for the recovery. No mention on how long Mr. Rimml took to acclimatize at those altitudes. Mr. Rimml was clearly an experienced climber and knew the dangers and affects of Hypoxia at 18,000ft. He also knew the first rule of mountain climbing is never to climb alone, especially in hazardous terrain. At those altitudes the O2 is about 50% of sea level which would clearly indicate some degree of Hypoxia. This experienced climber rushed and made foolish mistakes that cost him his life. Obviously his death won’t be the last.

    • In the aviation world, in order to go above 10,000′, you need to either be in a pressurized cabin with oxygen immediately available (yellow masks on airliners, for example), or wearing a mask with oxygen supplied. Cheers –

      • Lots of the old fighters had ashtrays in the cockpit. A-7D did. Stopped with jets built around 1970, so the F-15, F-16 and A-10 didn’t. And don’t get me started on ashtrays on airliners that all went away sometime in the 1970s. Cheers –

    • Bryan,
      This was my first thought. Most climbers who try speed ascents of Denali do so after they have been on the mountain for weeks (usually guiding) and have already reached the summit once that season. Due to Denali’s high latitude, the mountain feels over 2,000 feet higher when climbing. My experience has been that the altitude sickness does not hit you immediately, but rather takes a few days once over 14,000. I would be curious what mtns Matthias Rimml was claiming he just climbed for acclimatization.

      • Steve, I think what you are trying to say is acclimatization can take up to a week at 14,000ft? If not, then I have to disagree in that altitude sickness and Hypoxia can develop rather quickly. My experience is that smokers, believe it or not, experienced the greatest tolerance to the effects of Hypoxia. Shocked the hell out of me but made sense.

      • Bryan,
        Altitude sickness hits each climber differently (and I believe dehydration plays the most important role) I have had friends sick at 11,000 on their way up the hill and other friends get hit hard once they slept up at 17K. Myself, when I was on Denali, I felt great all the way into 14K then woke up the next day feeling like crap…I was fine after that to travel above 17K and return to 14 camp but if I slept up at 17, then I would start feeling weak again. Hard to say what happened here, but I would guess that altitude sickness played a role in his “slip”. NPS installs a ton of pickets in the traverse these days after all the falls & that is usually one of the jobs of the first patrols up on the mtn. Being a solo climber (and early in the season) Matthias Rimml didn’t have the benefit of the “installed” snow pickets with a running belay so his fall was fatal. Here is a good talk with Dr Hackett who is a leading expert on altitude sickness and was the medical director for NPS…he has done studies flying PJ’s up from sea level directly to 14K.

      • Thanks Steve, good watch from Dr. Hackett. Definitely informative for anybody going above 10k. Like you, I have seen people sick at 11-12,000′. As you know, 11,000 to 17-18,000 feet to 20,300 feet is HUGE and obviously affects people differently. Getting back to one of my earlier comments, I did witness an individual (who was a heavy smoker) who had little difficulty going above 20,000′ without supplemental. I actually thought he’d have the most difficulty. How wrong I was. Very interesting. As you mentioned dehydration plays a large part to. Rimml was no rookie. He knew the hazards on the mountain from start to finish. Sadly Physiology and overconfidence bit him on the ass.

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