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North America, United States, Alaska, Accidents

Accidents. On May 3, a large British group was descending the West Rib. At 14,800 feet, one member slipped and fell 800 feet, sustaining serious head injuries. The group’s CB radios were set to broadcast on a frequency not monitored by Base Camp, the air taxi operators or the National Park Service. Thus, a climber had to ski to Base Camp to report the accident. Word was relayed to the Talkeetna Ranger Station at 10:30 P.M. Insufficient light remained to conduct a rescue that day, so plans were made to attempt a helicopter hoist evacuation early on May 4. No private helicopters with winch capabilities were available. Assistance was requested through the Rescue Coordination Center at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The following morning, an Air Force C130 arrived to orbit the mountain to provide radio communications and the Army Chinook helicopters lowered an Air Force “PJ”. The injured climber was stabilized and then hoisted from the accident site. This was only the second hoist operation ever conducted on Mount McKinley.

Also in early May, an experienced Yugoslavian pair arrived to climb the West Buttress. They had been delayed by baggage lost by the airline and hoped to make up lost time by climbing rapidly. They moved to 14,200 feet in three days. When they began the ascent the next day, one felt ill and returned to 14,200 feet while his partner continued. The following day, the ill climber’s condition deteriorated and he became severely ataxic. Fortunately, he was found by a NSP patrol, who sledded him down to Windy Corner where his condition improved enough for him to begin his own descent. Meanwhile, oxygen was flown via helicopter from Talkeetna, but clouds prevented direct delivery to the Yugoslav. It was dropped to another party that shuttled it to the Yugoslav, who skied back to Base Camp without further assistance.

At the beginning of May, two Alaskans registered for a climb of the southeast ridge of Foraker. The next day, two Canadians registered for the same climb. On May 15, the Alaskan team’s due-out date, their air taxi operator could find no sign of anyone on the route. The National Park Service searched the route by helicopter and found tracks leading into an avalanche starting zone. Mountaineering equipment was discovered mixed with avalanche debris at the bottom of the avalanche nearly 3000 feet below where the tracks were seen. A ground search was determined to be too hazardous. Although no bodies were seen, the observations of the equipment from the hovering helicopter and the recovery of a stuff sack definitely linked the Alaskans to the accident. A yellow climbing suit was also seen which matches the description of a suit worn by one of the Canadians. All evidence points to the four men having been swept to their deaths in the avalanche. In 1978, two Japanese were killed in an avalanche just above where the Americans and Canadians were hit. During the intervening years, climbing parties have regularly reported close calls near the 10,500 to 12,000-foot level of the southeast ridge.

On May 15, a pair from Anchorage registered for an ascent of the west ridge of Mount Hunter. On May 22, the two men were approaching the summit when they triggered a soft slab avalanche which swept them both about 200 yards down the slope they had just ascended. One man was almost completely buried. After considerable effort and after between 30 and 45 minutes, he extricated himself. He then followed their rope to his partner who was completely buried. It took another 10 minutes to extricate him. There was no sign of life. The weather was severe and the pair had carried no bivouac gear. The survivor was forced to begin an immediate solo descent down the heavily crevassed and corniced west ridge. After several close calls, he was able to reach another climbing party at 10,600 feet. Poor weather prevented their descent until May 27.

Toward the end of May, a female member of a three-person Japanese expedition became ill at 17,200 feet on the West Buttress. The weather began to deteriorate and so they descended to the 14,200-foot basin. Once there, her condition did not improve but the other two did not seem concerned. A member of a nearby French expedition noticed she was unable to walk and sledded her to the medical camp, where she was diagnosed as having pulmonary edema. There she was treated with Diamox and continuous oxygen. The following day she was still unable to walk. The weather prevented an air evacuation and so a ground team was organized to sled her to 11,000 feet where a French and American team then continued on with her to Base Camp. Throughout the entire evacuation her party seemed unconcerned and unwilling to assist. She recovered once back near sea level in Talkeetna.

At the end of May, a West German team of two made a rapid ascent of the West Buttress. They climbed from 7200 feet at Base Camp to the 17,200-foot camp in five days. On the sixth day, they began their summit push, each traveling separately. Bad weather turned one man back at 19,200 feet. That night both men were tired but seemed all right. The next morning, one man was unresponsive and had a pulse of 90 and respiration rate of 56 per minute. He was placed on supplementary oxygen, lowered down the Rescue Gully and reached the 14,200-foot medical/rescue camp at two P.M. His condition remained serious but he was stabilized. He was air-evacuated the following day. The diagnosis was severe pulmonary and cerebral edema.

In early June, an American was descending the Messner Couloir, plunge-stepping into soft snow. During one of his steps, his cramponed boot snagged either on a pack strap or something dangling from his harness. He lost his balance, pitched forward and took a 1500-foot tumbling fall. A soft patch of snow stopped him but he was battered and sustained a broken hip. Fortunately, the fall had been seen by climbers in the 14,200-foot basin. A rescue team was quickly organized, and the injured climber was lowered to a landing site and air-evacuated by helicopter.

In early June, two Poles ascended the Messner Couloir. Their final camp was at 18,900 feet. From there they went to the summit and descended to their camp. They then began to glissade diagonally down the 30° to 40° slope toward the 17,200-foot camp on the West Buttress. During the glissade, the lead man hit an icy patch, lost control and fell 2600 feet. His partner cut over to the West Buttress and made a rapid descent to the 14,200-foot basin. From there, climbers ascended and located the lifeless victim. The team brought the body down to 14,200 feet, where it was flown off the mountain.

In early July, an 11-member guided expedition was camped below Windy Comer at 12,900 feet. It had been snowing but the guides said the large couloir and adjacent face of the buttress of the West Buttress had been sloughing off, thereby cleaning itself. At 5:30 A.M. the deposition zone created by the sloughing broke loose and the resulting slide tore through the camp and buried four of the five tents which held nine of the eleven expedition members. The two guides extricated themselves and with the help of the two team members who were not buried, located and freed all the rest. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. Four tents were destroyed. By good luck, the weather was mild with little wind. All had been sleeping at the time of the avalanche and so protective clothing was at a minimum. This is the third avalanche incident at this location.

In mid-June, an American soloist registered to climb the southeast ridge of Foraker and the Cassin Ridge of McKinley. Other climbers persuaded him to change his plans to the West Buttress. Once at the 14,200-foot basin he switched to the upper West Rib and successfully reached the summit. He descended to the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and announced his plans to another party to travel up and “take a look” at the Cassin. He was never seen again. During the search for him, tracks were seen proceeding up the northeast fork but then turning into a cirque and to the west of the start of the West Rib. The tracks ended in avalanche debris.

Items of Special Concern. Seven people lost their lives in climbing accidents in 1987. This is a significant increase over the past five years and the greatest number of fatalities since 1980, when eight people died. This was the first year since 1979 that a fatality has occurred on a mountain other than McKinley (four on Foraker and one on Hunter). In 1987, we expanded the slide-and-tape mountaineering orientation to include French and Spanish versions in addition to the German, Japanese and English versions which were available previously. We also constructed a storage box to house rescue equipment at 17,200 feet on the West Buttress. The cache is now in place. The information brochure Mountaineering was revised and we hope to expand it to Spanish and French in 1988. It is currently available in English, German and Japanese. For more information, or to request mountaineering information or registration forms, please contact Robert Seibert, South District Mountaineering Ranger, Talkeetna Ranger Station, P.O. Box 588, Talkeetna, Alaska 99676. Phone: 907-733-2231.

Robert Seibert, National Park Service