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Denali: The ones who scurry down


June 08, 2005

Every year, about 1,000 mountaineers climb North America's tallest mountain, Denali (Mount McKinley). Rarely mentioned are those who must turn back early and scurry down the mountain, bemoaning the onset of gastroenteritis.

Diarrhea, as we all know, can really ruin a vacation-just ask the five climbers, who were ascending the Denali's West Buttress route back in late May 2002. Instead of fond memories of taking triumphal pictures atop the peak, the climbers probably most remember abdominal cramps, loose stools, and general malaise.

The outbreak prompted a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to determine the burden of and risk factors for diarrheal illness among the route's climbers. As one of the most highly frequented alpine climbing routes in the U.S. park system, the researchers found substantial room for improvement, which could help alleviate diarrhea among mountaineers. Their study and recommendations were published in the latest issue of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.

"As growing numbers of persons climb popular alpine routes on Denali, Mount Rainier, Mount Everest, and other mountains," the researchers said, "it is likely that communicable disease outbreaks will become increasingly more common."

To get an idea of the situation on the Denali route: two designated campsites with established pit latrines are along the route, located at 7,200 and 14,200 feet of altitude. Numerous intermediate campsites do not have pit latrines. Existing regulation requires that climbers use latrines, put their fecal waste in a crevasse, or carry it off the mountain.

But because of the deadly risk of falling into crevasses, as well as extreme cold, blizzard conditions, and fatigue, climbers often decide to defecate on the snow while traveling in or near their camp. High winds can then spread fecal particles onto the top layers of snow, which is the water source for climbers.

In the study, researchers collected 132 questionnaires from Denali climbers who returned to base camp from June 11 to 14, 2002. Here are some statistics from the data:

  • 38 (29%) climbers had diarrhea at some point on the mountain
  • 51 (39%) saw snow contaminated with feces in or near at least one of their camps
  • 103 (78%) collected snow for consumption within 10 m from camp
  • 14 (11%) admitted to defecating directly into the snow
  • 74 (56%) rarely or never boiled or purified their water

Factors that increased illness risk included climbing with someone who had diarrhea, spending more time at a particular camp where there were frequent feces sightings, and not being knowledgeable about good hygienic techniques.

The researchers included several recommendations in the article for climbers and park officials to use during the upcoming hiking and mountaineering season.


On the Web:

The entire study:

Note: Wilderness & Environmental Medicine is a peer-reviewed quarterly medical journal published by the Wilderness Medical Society. For more information, visit


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