American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary, 1990

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991

Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary, 1990. Heavy winter snows, volcanic ash deposits, near record numbers of climbers, few accidents and generally good weather summarizes the 1990 mountaineering season in the Alaska Range. Record snows fell at the lower elevations during the winter of 1989-90. There were no winter attempts on Mount McKinley or any other major peak within Denali National Park and Preserve. During the winter, Mount Redoubt, about 150 miles south of the Alaska Range repeatedly erupted, lightly dusting the range with multiple layers of volcanic ash. This was similar to when Mount Augustine erupted in 1986. Dark ash layers, exposed to the radiant heat of the sun, caused greatly accelerated melting of the snow pack and uneven melting of the surface. Concern over a repeat of the 1986 early closure of aircraft landing strips made a number of groups planning late expeditions either move their trips ahead or cancel them. Late June snows extended the season longer than expected, but nevertheless flights to the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier stopped after the first several days of July. To cope with people still on the mountain, landings to pick up parties were authorized at 9500 feet on the Kahiltna, but no drop-offs were permitted at this location.

The Denali Medical Research Project did not operate in 1990. In its place, the Park Service mountaineering staff established a camp at the traditional site at 14,300 feet on the West Buttress. From that medical and rescue camp, rangers contacted mountaineers and coordinated search-and-rescue activities. Despite the nearly record number of climbers, there were only three such incidents on McKinley which involved the National Park Service. This is the lowest number since 1975 when 363 persons registered to climb Mount McKinley. The National Park Service conducted four 24-day patrols on McKinley, as well as numerous patrols into other areas of the Alaska Range. We continue to staff a ranger station in Talkeetna where mountaineers register for their expeditions. A strong emphasis is placed on environmentally sound expeditionary climbing and sanitation techniques. Climbers are encouraged to remain self-sufficient and to conduct their own evacuations whenever possible.

Interesting Statistics: Near Record Number of Climbers on Mount McKinley: In 1990, 998 persons attempted to climb Mount McKinley, only 11 short of the record of 1009 set in 1989. Had the volcanic ash not forced cancelations, 1990 would probably have continued the four-year trend of increasing use: 1979=533, 1980=659, 1981=612, 1982=696, 1983=709, 1984=695, 1985=645, 1986=755, 1987=817, 1988=916, 1989=1009, 1990=998. Success Rate: 573 (57%) of those attempting McKinley were successful. This season saw a flurry of activity on Foraker. Eleven expeditions attempted seven different routes. One new route was established. Six out of 28 climbers (21%) reached the summit. Thirteen expeditions attempted four routes on Hunter. Eight out of 44 climbers (18%) reached the summit. Record Number of Climbers on McKinley during a Given Week. A new high of 383 climbers were on the slopes of McKinley for the week of May 20. New Altitude for Mount McKinley? Despite measurements made by GPS in 1989, no new elevation of Mount McKinley is yet official and so for the present the previous height of 20,320 feet remains the accepted height. Acute Mountain Sickness: 143 (14%) had symptoms. Of these, 103 (73%) were mild, 31 (22%) were moderate and (5%) were severe. Frostbite: 30 (3%) reported some degree of frostbite. Of these, 22 (73%) were mild, 5 (16%) required doctor’s care and 3 (10%) required hospitalization. West Buttress Route: 701 (71%) were on the popular West Buttress route, a significant decrease from the past several years when about 85% were on the West Buttress. Soloists: 17 (1.7%) persons registered for solo climbs this season, two fewer than last year. Seven reached the summit. Some were able to team with other expeditions at least to traverse the heavily crevassed portions of the lower glacier. One of the soloists miraculously survived and was able to extricate himself from a 40-foot crevasse fall. Mountain Guiding: 342 (34%) of the climbers on Mount McKinley were with one of the authorized guiding companies. Their success rate was 54%. Most were on the West Buttress, but other guided trips attempted the West Buttress-Muldrow Glacier traverse, West Rib, South Buttress and Cassin Ridge. Foreign Climbers: 333 (33%) of the climbers were from 29 foreign countries: Afghanistan 1, Austria 7, Australia 12, Bulgaria 4, Canada 33, Chile 1, Czechoslovakia 3, Denmark 1, France 41, Germany 51, Great Britain 72, Greece 1, Italy 3, Japan 30, Korea 3, Mexico 3, Nepal 1, Netherlands 8, New Zealand 7, Northern Ireland 1, Norway 4, Pakistan 2, Romania 1, Spain 12, Sweden 3, Switzerland 15, Taiwan 4, USSR 7, Yugoslavia 2. New Routes and Interesting Activities: Mount McKinley: Canadians made two new routes on the West Buttress Direct. Mike Covington guided a traverse off the upper Cassin Ridge to the West Rib. For all three, see details in the “Climbs and Expeditions” section. In May, a French team paraglided from 15,000 feet on the West Buttress to within an hour’s walk of the Kahiltna Base Camp at 7000 feet. On May 23, a strong and well acclimatized Russian, Anatoly Burkerov climbed the West Rib from its base at 11,000 feet to the south summit in 10½ hours. In June, Alaskan Norma Gene Saunders became the first woman officially to document a solo ascent of McKinley. She climbed the West Buttress. In July, British Simon Abrahams and James Hall completed the first alpine-style ascent of the South Buttress. They continued down the Muldrow Glacier and out to Wonder Lake. Other Peaks: John Phelan and Dave Charman’s new route, “False Dawn,” on Foraker is covered in a full article. Other notable ascents are described in the “Climbs and Expeditions” section.

Accidents: Fall with Injuries; Helicopter Evacuation: On April 9, Alaskans Gary Donofrio and Jim Bouchard were ascending the southeast spur of Mount Deception. After a rest stop, Donofrio started up the ridge while Bouchard completed packing his pack. They were roped together by a 50-meter rope. Before a belay was provided to Donofrio, a huge section of cornice broke and he began a tumbling fall down the 75° slope. The fracture line extended to within two feet of Bouchard. Both men’s axes were lost. Bouchard jumped off the other side of the ridge and stopped Donofrio’s fall. He was eventually able to haul Donofrio back up to the ridge. Donofrio had suffered internal injuries and had lost his pack. During the next ten hours, the pair slowly made their way back to their Base Camp at 5700 feet on the Eldridge Glacier. The following day, Bouchard skied 28 miles to the Parks Highway to report the accident. Donofrio was evacuated by the mountaineering rangers and a US Army Chinook Helicopter later that evening. Injury from Falling Rock; Helicopter Evacuation: On May 26, Dwight Percy and other members of his expedition were traversing at 12,500 feet on the West Buttress when Percy was struck by a football-sized rock which fell from the buttress. While others carried his gear, Percy continued to ascend to the 14,300-foot medical-rescue camp. The group camped there for four days while Percy attempted to recuperate enough to descend under his own power. He remained stable but did not improve. On May 31, he was evacuated by helicopter. X-rays revealed fractures of the left illium and the pelvic ramis bone. Fall and Fatalities: On May 24, Michael Koshuta and Stuart Jones left the Kahiltna Base Camp for the Cassin Ridge, where they were last seen at 15,700 feet on June 1. They were listed as overdue on June 9 and air search began on the 10th. Their bodies were located by air search on June 12. It appears that they attempted the long traverse from the upper Cassin to the West Rib when one or both slipped. There had been severe weather shortly after they were last seen. They may have attempted to reach 16,200 feet on the West Rib. From that point, the 14,300-foot camp on the West Buttress can generally be reached. Open Bivouac; HAPE Fatality: Frostbite; Helicopter Evacuation: On May 23, seven Japanese flew to the Kahiltna Base Camp to climb the West Rib. On June 9, they left their high camp at 18,000 feet with minimal gear to push for the summit. When they reached the junction of the West Buttress route at 19,500 feet, Hiroaki Ito was suffering from a bad cough, shortness of breath and difficulty in walking. By mutual consent, he was left while the rest continued to the summit. The weather deteriorated to a white-out. During the descent, two of the summit team became disoriented and continued down the West Buttress past the junction and Ito. The rest of the team located Ito, whose condition was worse. Unfortunately, those with Ito thought the other two were still lost on the upper mountain and they decided to remain at the junction, making noise to attract the missing climbers. Meanwhile, the “missing” climbers had joined an American party and had begun a descent of the West Buttress. The weather deteriorated. The condition of Ito and his companions became so bad that further descent was impossible. Rescue teams moved upward the next morning. Even though the weather was somewhat better, the Japanese could not drag Ito. Their leader remained with him while the other three, badly frostbitten, began the descent down the West Buttress. By afternoon, the weather had improved enough to allow air drops of oxygen and equipment. As the leader was retrieving the supplies, Ito died from pulmonary edema. The Japanese who bivouacked with Ito suffered severe frostbite, were evacuated by helicopter and eventually lost nearly all their toes.

Trends and Items of Special Concern: Increasing Use: In 1990, climbers spent a total of more than 18,745 user days on Mount McKinley alone! Over

DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE 1990 MOUNTAINEERING SUMMARY



Expeditions

Climbers

Successful Climbers



Mount McKinley



West Buttress

131

475

257



West Buttress (guided)

29

236

162



W. Butt. to Muldrow

7

31

9



W. Butt. to Muldrow (guided)

4

40

32



Muldrow

6

22

8



Muldrow (guided)

1

15

12



Muldrow to W. Buttress

3

11

7



West Rib

18

51

26



West Rib (guided)

5

29

6



W. Rib from 14,000' W. Butt.

4

22

20



Messner Couloir

0

0

0



Cassin

17

42

24



Cassin (guided)

1

6

6



South Buttress

3

8

4



South Buttress (guided)

0

0

0



South East Spur

1

2

0



American Direct

0

0

0



Reality Ridge

0

0

0



Northwest Buttress

2

5

0



Pioneer Ridge

1

3

0



Wickersham Wall

0

233

0

998

0

573



Mount Foraker



Talkeetna Ridge

2

5

2



Southwest Spur

1

4

0



Northeast Ridge

3

9

0



Pink Panther

1

2

2



Infinite Spur

1

2

0



French Ridge

2

4

0



False Dawn (new route)

1

2

2



Mount Hunter



Northwest Buttress

3

8

0



Southeast Face

3

6

2



West Ridge

5

25

3



North Face

2

5

3



Mount Huntington



Western routes

4

11

0



Kahiltna Dome

0

0

0



Kahiltna Dome (guided)

0

0

0





Expeditions

Climbers

Successful Climbers



E. Kahiltna Peak

0

0

0



Mount Russell

0

0

0



Mount Russell (guided)

0

0

0



Mount Brooks

0

0

0



Mount Brooks (guided)

0

0

0



Mount Silverthrone

2

18

16



Little Switzerland

1

2

2



Little Switzerland (guided)

0

0

0



Gorge Peaks

14

47

14



Mooses Tooth

west summit

9

23

23



east summit

2

4

4



Mooses Tooth (guided, west pk.)

1

4

4



Mount Dan Beard

3

9

4



Peak 11,300

3

9

7



Mount Francis

0

0

0



Rooster Comb

0

0

0



Mount Deception

1

2

0



NOTE: Since registration is required only for Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker climbs, statistics for other climbs represent those climbers who voluntarily checked in with the Mountaineering Rangers. Other climbs, especially in the Ruth Glacier area, are likely to have occurred.

12,823 were on the West Buttress. The use of the West Buttress is even higher if one considers that many other routes are accessed via the lower West Buttress. For example, an additional 3262 user days were spent by climbers traversing from the West Buttress to the Muldrow Glacier or the reverse. Sanitation: With increasing use, it is more important to dispose properly of human waste to prevent the contamination of snow that might be melted and used for drinking or cooking water by future expeditions. We still suggest the use of plastic bags as latrines. When moving camp, tie the bags off and toss into a deep crevasse. The use of biodegradable plastic bags is recommended. Use the latrines in the camps where they are provided. Trash: Many expeditions are hauling their trash to Base Camp to be flown off the mountain. Still others continue to crevasse their trash. Trash is an increasing problem in the mountains all over the world. Mountaineers from all nations must take the responsibility for preserving the quality of the world’s mountain environments. A combination of education, leading by example and peer pressure are the most effective tools to be brought to bear against less considerate mountaineers. The war in the Persian Gulf will likely affect the 1991 mountaineering operation on Mount McKinley. In the past, the Denali Medical Research Project and the National Park Service have relied on the US Army High Altitude Rescue Team from Fort Wainwright, Alaska to insert and extract the medical-rescue-research camp at 14,300 feet on the West Buttress. It appears that flight crew and equipment commitments to the war effort will preclude the Army’s ability to conduct high-altitude rescue missions during the 1991 climbing season. For more information and to request mountaineering information and/or registration forms, please contact me: Robert Seibert, South District Mountaineering Ranger, Talkeetna Ranger Station, PO Box 588, Talkeetna, Alaska 99676. (Phone: 907-733-2231.)

Robert Seibert, Denali National Park and Preserve

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