American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaska, St. Elias

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1959

Alaska, St. Elias—On July 16, Dave Tolland (23), Ray D’Arcy (25), Ritner Walling (24), and Leo Slaggie (22) were camped at about 11,500 feet just below the summit of a peak on the West Buttress route of Mt. St. Elias. They had been forced to camp here because of stormy weather. Their two tents were pitched a little below the crest of the ridge on a platform, and perpendicular to the gradient of the slope with entrances facing each other about 5 feet apart. The slope was estimated at 40 degrees. The tops of the tents were slightly below the level of the snow on the uphill side. Tolland and Slaggie were in a new two-man impermeable sleeve entrance army mountain tent, and Walling and D’Arcy were in a nylon Gerry, two-man mountain tent which was used for cooking because its fabric was permeable.

During the night and the next day strong winds buffetted the tents and drifted snow over them, which restricted the room in the army tent. Pack boards were used in the Gerry tent to hold the snow away, and it was more favorably pitched than the mountain tent. Frequent clearing of the ventilators was required. Although they dug out the tents once or twice they were quickly buried again. On the 17th they remained in the tents except for brief trips outside. Less than half of the usual floor space was available in the mountain tent and Slaggie and Tolland noted that the air was “bad” as evidenced by their rapid breathing. One of the ventilators was completely blocked by snow. They tried repeated adjustments of the tunnel entrance and the ventilators with only temporary relief. At about 6 a.m. on the 18th Slaggie awoke. The tent was silent and motionless and seemed completely buried. After various unsuccessful efforts to improve the ventilation Slaggie decided to dig out the tunnel entrance. The tent was so collapsed he could not reach his equipment. He dug out the entrance with his hands while Tolland pulled the door back over his hips. He finally surfaced, exhausted and cold. Only the peak of the Gerry tent was visible. He therefore slid back into the tent to rest and warm up. Temperatures were about —10° F. Both he and Tolland began gasping for breath and so Slaggie started out the entrance again. He was unable to get free of the door and stopped his digging to try and catch his breath. He apparently lost consciousness since the next thing he remembered was being in the other tent, where he had been taken by the others at about 8:30 a.m. Walling had dug his way out of the Gerry tent through hard wind-packed snow and found Slaggie unconscious with evidence of frostbite. Tolland was found motionless and not breathing. Mouth to mouth artificial respiration was used on Tolland followed by prone pressure methods. Artificial respiration was given for 4-5 hours. At this point the party decided to leave Tolland’s body and evacuate the camp. The three survivors returned to their base camp on July 21. Slaggie suffered considerable frost bite on his left hand, and toes. They flew out by plane on July 24. Slaggie’s injuries improved but he required 2 weeks of hospitalization. He lost none of his fingers or toes.

Source: Leo Slaggie and Ray D’Arcy.

Analysis: This appears to be a case of suffocation in an impermeable tent, the normal ventilation of which was obstructed by the drifting snow. The altitude, although not extreme, meant less oxygen was available; furthermore, the restricted volume within the tent and the exertion of Slaggie and Tolland probably reduced the supply further. Since all cooking was done in the other tent carbon monoxide (CO) does not seem to be implicated. The question might be asked whether a snow cave would have been better than the tents. In general snow tends to be porous and allow air to diffuse in and out. When it is frozen, however, it becomes impermeable. In addition, the local conditions probably did not lend themselves to such construction. (Additional analysis by D’Arcy follows.)

Although none of the party had previously climbed in Alaska, all had done considerable winter and summer snow camping and climbing in the United States and Canada. Their preparations for surviving bad Alaskan weather at high altitude had been found adequate in the five days of severe storms at the preceeding camp. The extraordinary condition of the snow at the final camp—namely, the formation of ten inches of nearly impermeable windslab over the tents in the seven hours between D’Arcy’s last trip outside and Slaggie’s attempt to dig out—was the factor which made this accident possible. Several contributing factors can be traced directly to the design of the army tent. The impermeability of the fabric was dangerous in a high altitude blizzard, since all ventilation depended on the two small air tunnels near the peak, the design of which made clearing difficult when the tent was buried. Further, the guying arrangement did not succeed as well as that of the Gerry tent in preserving inside air space. Finally, and critically important, the tunnel entrance of the army tent was an entirely inadequate emergency exit. The entangling folds of the door, an annoying obstruction even in normal service, were a fatal restraint to Slaggie’s efforts. By contrast, Walling and D’Arcy’s tent had two exits, the design of which caused little obstruction to digging out. Similar expeditions in the future should certainly shun the single-exit impermeable tent in favor of permeable Meade tents with two exits. The large Logan tent, while less subject to burial would have been very difficult to pitch in such a location and is more vulnerable to high wind.

Under the given circumstances the factor contributing most to the lack of positive action in time to prevent this accident was the failure of the climbers to realize the seriousness of their predicament. It should be pointed out here that the general reaction of other climbers upon hearing of this accident was the feeling “How could it have happened?” The failure to realize that a fatality could occur under such a circumstance left this party with the notion that only discomfort could result to men with adequate food, gasoline, and equipment seemingly adequate for survival in the storm. A stoic form of laziness induced by many tedious days of waiting out bad weather had dulled their initiative at a time when they should have kept clearing the tents and constantly checking on each other’s welfare. In particular, had Slaggie seen to it that vital items like gloves, boots, and a knife were at hand instead of buried under the sleeping bag in his semi-collapsed tent, he might have been spared much of his subsequent frostbite. And obviously, closer checking and a prompt discovery of the situation on the morning of the accident would have led to a more fortunate outcome.

Mountaineers are reluctant to admit that any accident is completely unavoidable and the above discussion indicates that this one certainly cannot be so classified. Yet in fairness to the party it should again be mentioned that only the most desperate of efforts might have prevented the extraordinary accumulation of snow over the tents, and such efforts might well have brought severe frostbite to those making them. Clearly a severe storm in the high mountains should be regarded as a seige rather than a rest day. It is to be hoped that an understanding of this accident will spur future parties to maintain their alertness at a time when through weariness and boredom it is most likely to falter.

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