American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1961

Alaska, Mount McKinley—On May 14, at approximately 6:00 a.m., John Day (51), Peter Schoening (33), Jim Whittaker (31), and his brother Louis (31) arrived in Anchorage, intending to climb Mt. McKinley by the West Buttress Route, the standard route since the disruption of the Muldrow Glacier in the Spring of 1957.

The expedition’s equipment comprised some 800 pounds, one-half of which was food. Don Sheldon flew John Day and Jim Whittaker and a portion of the equipment to Talkeetna. Lou and Pete took the train leaving at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at Talkeetna about noon.

Sheldon had obtained permission to land at the 10,200 foot level on the Kahiltna Glacier. He then ferried Jim Whittaker to this point. The base camp of the Japanese expedition from Meije University was about 200 yards away. Don then returned to pick up John Day at about 11:00 a.m. and landed him along-side Jim about two hours later. By the time Sheldon had returned from his trip, Lou and Pete had arrived in Talkeetna. At about 2:00 p.m., Lou was flown in and about 2½ hours later, Pete made the trip. In the evening, a final trip was made by Sheldon in order to bring the air drop supplies which were to be dropped at the 14,400 foot elevation the next day.

During the time that Lou, Pete and the air drop supplies were being flown in, John Day and Jim Whittaker proceeded to take photographs of the Kahiltna Glacier from a photographic survey point. Following the completion of this work, John and Jim returned to their supplies and with the help of Pete and Lou, who had now arrived, set up their Logan Tent. Throughout the day, clear, calm weather had prevailed and after completing plans for the next day, the party turned in about 8:00 p.m.

On May 15, the party awoke, ate breakfast, and prepared to leave camp. Weather was clear and calm although there were some clouds on the Mountain. They proceeded on snow shoes to the 11,200 foot elevation where John Day set up another photographic survey point as a part of his photographic study. At about one-half a mile from Windy Corner (elevation 13,000 feet) the party cached their snowshoes and proceeded on foot. Here, as on virtually all parts of the route, a track had been made by the two Japanese expeditions and the Anchorage Party that were up ahead. The route was marked with wands and presented no problems of route findings.

It may now be helpful to review the positions of all four parties on the Mountain at this time. There were two Japanese parties, an Anchorage party, and the Seattle party. The two Japanese parties were from two separate Universities and not connected in their climbing activities. The group from Wasada University had completed their unsuccessful attempt on a new route on the South Rim of the Kahiltna Cirque. The party from Meije University had completed the climb to the summit by the West Buttress and were now re-established at about 15,000 elevation. On this day, the Anchorage camp was at 15,500 feet, very close to the base of the ice slope leading to the West Buttress. Andy Brauchli and Paul Crews had dropped down to the tent of the Meije Camp and from there saw Don Sheldon drop supplies at the 14,400 foot level for the Seattle Party. Some time after the air drop, the Seattle Party arrived at the 14,400 foot level, rested, made camp, and recovered the air drop in preparation for moving on the next day.

On May 16, the Anchorage Party at their 15,500 foot elevation camp, started about 10:00 a.m. with Andy Brauchli (34) and Chuck Metzger (24) leading up the ice wall. Rod Wilson (38), Paul Crews (42), and Helga Bading (31), who was feeling the effects of mountain sickness, came behind. At about 11:00 a.m. the Seattle Party left their camp (14,400 elevation) and proceeded to the base of the ice wall. Due to the passage of the Meije University Team and the Anchorage Party, a fixed rope had been installed on this section and steps had either been chopped or kicked for the entire distance.

Because of this, the Seattle Party was able to climb this section easily. Upon reaching the top, they rested for about one hour. After this, they continued and passed the Anchorage Party which had become delayed because of the loss of a cook kit. The Seattle Party pitched camp at approximately 16,600 feet elevation. The Anchorage Party made camp below the Seattle Party at the 16,400 feet elevation. After pitching camp,

John Day set up a photographic survey point above camp where he took another series of photographs for the Glacier Survey. This was completed and he returned to camp for dinner and all members then turned in.

On May 17, after a good night’s sleep, the Seattle Party awoke to another clear and calm morning. They left camp at approximately 10:00 a.m. roping up into two ropes of two. They climbed up the ridge for about ¼ of a mile, and then to the Peters Glacier, and up a traverse to Denali Pass. This route had been previously traveled by the Meije University Team and some wands remained. They added additional wands as they climbed. The surface was hard packed snow and ice that had been deeply furrowed by the wind. However, it did take crampons quite well. At Denali Pass they rested and then proceeded on the left side towards the summit.

The Anchorage Party had started later than the Seattle Party. It had become apparent that Mrs. Bading’s mountain sickness had become worse and any summit attempt by her was impossible. It was hoped that she would be able to acclimatize and in a day or two she might make an attempt for the summit. Mrs. Bading remained in camp. The Anchorage Party continued behind the Seattle Party and was separated by about one hour. At approximately the vicinity of the Arch Deacon’s Tower, the Seattle Party was resting—and it was at this point, at about 6:00 p.m. and about 500 feet below the summit that the Anchorage Party caught up and passed the Seattle Party. The Anchorage Party pressed on to the summit reaching it at 7:15 p.m. The Seattle Party followed and reached the summit about 15 minutes later. The weather was clear, calm, and minus 30° F. with a cloud layer at about the 12,000 foot elevation. On the summit was a Meade Tent and a plastic summit pole flying the flags of the United States, Japan, and the Universities of Alaska and of Meije, left by the Japanese.

Mutual pictures were exchanged and about 7:45 p.m., the Anchorage Party started down. The Seattle Party continued taking pictures leaving approximately 15 minutes after the Anchorage Party. At 9:40 p.m., the Anchorage Party was back at Denali Pass and by 11:00 p.m. had reached the snowfield at 17,000 feet. The Seattle Party upon reaching Denali Pass rested and re-tied the two ropes of two into one rope of four thinking it would be safer. Jim Whittaker was first on the combined rope followed by John Day, Lou Whittaker, and Pete Schoening. The traverse began over a relatively steep and crevassed section though it became less steep towards the end. In crossing this latter section, Jim Whittaker’s right foot slipped. He sat down and began sliding. John Day was pulled off, then Lou Whittaker, and finally, Pete Schoening was carried down. The party slid and tumbled down the slope for about 400 feet coming to rest at a point where the slope eased off before once again dropping to the Peters Glacier. It quickly became apparent that John Day had suffered a broken leg. Jim Whittaker and Pete Schoening were knocked momentarily unconscious but Lou Whittaker suffered only minor bruises. In retrospect Pete was semi-dazed for a period of approximately 24 hours after the accident.

They immediately called to the Anchorage Party who turned and saw the Seattle Party at the bottom of the slope. The Anchorage Party, appreciating the lateness of the hour and that some members were seriously hurt, continued on to the Seattle Camp. Paul Crews took down their tent, packed it, and then started back towards the site of the accident. Meanwhile realizing that John could not be moved, Lou, Jim, and Pete cut a hollow into the slope. They put John into a sleeping bag, that they had carried to the summit, and braced him into the hollow with two ice axes. They started down to their camp to obtain a tent since they were not sure that the Anchorage Party had understood their shouts. On the way down, they met Paul Crews coming up with their big tent. Paul got to John, cut a slit in the bottom of the tent, and placed the tent around John.

After completing the arrangements for John, Paul Crews left and reached the camp at about 3:30 a.m. The weather was clear and calm, the temperature was minus 15°F. As Pete, Lou, and Jim proceeded toward their camp, they became confused as to its exact location. Jim unroped and proceeded ahead to the camp. In turn, Lou also unroped and was able to reach camp. When Lou reached the camp, he realized Pete was by himself on the ridge and turned back to find him. After some searching, he found Pete, who, though dazed, had stopped moving when he realized he was lost. He had lost a mitten on his left hand which resulted in quite severe frost-bite to his fingers. When Lou reached him, they immediately proceeded back to camp and got into their sleeping bags—lying down without any tent.

On May 18, at 6:00 a.m., radio contact was established with Anchorage by the Anchorage Party. The accident was reported and assistance was requested. In later radio reports, Helga Bading’s condition was also reported. The effect of the altitude and the news of the accident combined to make her condition worse. Pete Schoening, and Jim Whittaker were escorted back to the 17,000 foot elevation for helicopter evacuation. An air drop was received at 1:00 a.m. on May 19. Weather conditions did not permit a helicopter landing that day. On May 20, another air drop was received which included an Akja (a special type of toboggan). Brauchli, Metzger and Crews placed Helga Bading in the Akja and lowered her down the ice wall, using frequent belays. Brauchli returned to 16,400 after assisting in the evacuation to 15,500 feet. Metzger and Crews continued to the 14,400 foot camp. There they met Sheldon who had just landed his plane. Helga was then placed in the plane and Sheldon flew her to Anchorage (she subsequently made a complete recovery).

During the day, a Cessna 180 airplane flew over the Seattle Party at the 17,000 foot elevation. In making a sharp turn, it apparently lost maneuverability and crashed into the mountain. The plane immediately caught fire. It was later determined that two men were in the plane, both of whom were killed either in the crash or in the resulting fire.

Later that day, Link Luckett landed a helicopter at the 17,000 foot elevation and evacuated Day. On May 21, Schoening was removed by Luckett. By this time, a large ground party had been placed on the Kahiltna. Dee Molenaar, George Senner, Gene Prater, and Gary Rose, members of this group, and Paul Crews, and Chuck Metzger ascended the wall to bring down the Whittakers. They met the Whittakers and Wilson and Brauchli at the 16,400 foot elevation and escorted them down. The Anchorage Party redescended the wall and arrived at the 14,400 foot camp in a blizzard.

The storm lasted two days and deposited a considerable amount of new snow that prevented the descent of the party for another day. During this period, a member of the rescue party suffered from severe altitude sickness. He was flown out by Sheldon on May 25 and the rest of the party walked out to 10,200 feet where they were finally evacuated on May 26.

Source: Personal reports of Pete Schoening, John Day, Jim and Lou Whittaker, Paul Crews, and Rod Wilson.

Analysis: This accident points out that the descent of any mountain is potentially dangerous since the stimulus of reaching the summit has gone and the element of fatigue has increased. In this instance, the accident occurred close to the camp when their vigilance may have been relaxed resulting in a minor slip that was magnified into this accident.

The physical condition of the party appeared to be excellent. They had all been previously well acclimatized to a minimum of 14,000 feet. Schoening had climbed higher than 20,000 feet twice before in the Himalayas.

The previous passage of the two Japanese and one Anchorage Party had virtually eliminated the normal problems of making a track and establishing a route. The weather throughout the climb was good to excellent.

It appears, therefore, that their speed was consistent with their physical condition, the preparation of the route, and the weather.

Their equipment and food were adequate to excellent. In fact, their down jackets and sleeping bags prevented their suffering more injury after the fall.

It was extremely fortunate that the Anchorage Party was close to the scene of the accident and that they had carried a radio to their high camp.

Currently, the condition of the Seattle Party is excellent. Pete Schoening has lost the tips of his little and third fingers of his left hand as a result of frost-bite. John Day was apparently fully recovered from his leg injury. Jim and Lou Whittaker are completely recovered. The altitude sickness of Helga Bading and one of the rescue team demonstrate how crippling this condition can be to an individual and to the entire party.

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