American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Foraker Tragedy, Pink Panther Route

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993

Foraker Tragedy, Pink Panther Route. Our original plan was for Tom Walter, Ritt Kellogg and me to join forces on June 13 at the Kahiltna Base Camp to try an unclimbed route on Hunter, the ridge just south of its west ridge, which Walter had attempted two years before. Kellogg and I flew in on June 3. After reconnaissance, an unsuccessful attempt on Hunter from the west and some doubtful weather, we two were joined by Walter on the 13th as planned. We were all discouraged when we studied the unclimbed ridge. Ritt and I had had a good look at it while descending the west ridge. Two years ago, the crux for Tom had been getting to the base of the ridge up a heavily crevassed glacier. A new obstacle now presented itself; the glacial headwall exit off the ridge had turned into a broken icefall, possibly as a result of last summer’s earthquake. We decided on the Pink Pather route on the east face of Foraker as an alternative. Although much of the east face is exposed to avalanche danger from hanging glaciers and cornices, it seemed free from objective danger, would provide challenging mixed climbing and could be done quickly with bail-out options. On the evening of June 14, with six days of food we were below the S-shaped couloir at the foot of the face, but we waited there to see what the weather would do. By the morning of the 16th, three inches of snow had fallen, but we quickly climbed the 2000 feet of the couloir with running belays. The couloir ended with a rotten ice pitch and was followed by several rock bands. We put in two-thirds of the entire route before we dug in. On the night of the 16th, it snowed two more inches. We were able to make a break for it at midday on the 17th and pushed through a ridge section in a whiteout. The final obstacle was a long, steep rock buttress. Because clouds were obscuring the view, we dug in. By mid morning of the 18th, the weather improved. The demanding climbing went well. As we were finishing the technical difficulties, visibility decreased to 50 meters and the wind picked up. We had ahead the final exposed slope/ridge, 1400 feet of 60° to 65° ice, where the route meets up with the southeast ridge. Feeling strong, we continued with running belays, but discovered honeycombed, unprotectable ice. Digging in, bucket-seat belays or climbing unroped seemed unacceptable alternatives. Speed appeared to equal safety. For a couple of hours, we climbed steadily upwards, on ice all the way. The first I knew of the avalanche was when it hit me. According to the rangers, we were 200 feet below the southeast ridge; an ice axe was sighted here twelve days later from a helicopter fly-by. Tom Walter was leading and Ritt Kellogg was bringing up the rear. I don’t remember seeing or hearing anything from either of them. Self-arrest proved useless against the overwhelming force of the avalanche. I was quickly flipped headfirst onto my back. I blacked out seconds later. We slid 1200 feet back to the top of the final buttress before the rope between me and Tom snagged on a rock. When I came to, it was morning, clear but windy. By now it was the 19th. I must have been unconscious for four to six hours. There was no sign of the avalanche; the slope was too steep and windswept. Tom was not far from me, the rope having caught near its middle. I worked my way over to him and discovered he was dead. His entire face was covered by a thick layer of snow, which could not be brushed away. His body was rigid and there was no pulse. Below him was evidence of considerable blood loss. I yelled in vain for Ritt whose rope disappeared over a steep section. In my present condition and the buffeting wind, I could not go to him. I replaced my lost left crampon with Tom’s and struggled to remove his pack. I then cut the loaded rope and was shocked when Tom slid away. The only refuge in sight was a horizontal chair-sized rock 20 feet away. While getting there, I realized my left foot and shoulder were injured, my neck was stiff and my head ached. I slept not at all that day and night, anchored to my axes, with Tom’s bag and bivouac sack. I knew I was hypothermic from my full-body shivers and I craved water. When the wind lessened, I emerged. It must have been the 21st. Equalizing my axes, I fixed the 7mm rope going to Ritt and rappelled down. He was 140 feet below, upside down, with his face hidden behind an armor of snow like Tom’s. When I attempted to unravel Ritt’s body from the rope tangle, it bounded down 25 feet and shock-loaded the static rope, yanking me off my feet. I pulled out the tent, fuel and food and drank the water. Securing the body to axes, I cut the rope and ascended. From Tom’s pack, I grabbed food and fuel and stuffed it into mine. As I readied to begin the descent, I noticed my helmet had been shattered on the same side that my head ached and I left it behind. I had to descend the southeast ridge. There were glacier jumbles to negotiate, headwalls to rappel and traverses under hanging glaciers. With my injuries, it felt harder than it probably was. It took me four long periods of climbing, plus some rest and waiting for clouds to clear. Needless to say, my faith in God was being reaffirmed. I reached our skis just before the weather closed in for four more days and made it to Kahiltna Base Camp at five A.M. on the 24th. I had two things to do: I had to get a call to NOLS before Tom’s wife, Lisa Johnson, flew in that evening and I had to get some sleep. I slept till noon and then hurried to the Base Camp manager’s tent to inform her of what had happened. From that point on, I got caught up in a river of support from rangers, other climbers, NOLS, friends and family. I suspect the avalanche came from an isolated pocket of wind-deposited snow. No fracture line was visible later to the rangers in the helicopter. No snow had fallen on Foraker for twelve days, and the five inches that fell over the 48 hours before the accident had given us little cause for concern. The slope was ice and wasn’t going to avalanche under our feet.

Colby Coombs, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

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