American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Exposure, Fatigue, Inexperienced—Alaska, Mt. McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1977

EXPOSURE, FATIGUE, INEXPERIENCED—Alaska, Mt. McKinley. The National Crampoon party of ten members was flown onto the Kahiltna Glacier on April 22, 1976 to begin a climb of the West buttress route. By Sunday, May 9, seven members of the party were at 17,200 feet while three who were ill returned to 14,200. On Monday, May 10, John Thompson (23), Don Wheeler (22), and Paul (20) and Dave Willis (23) began a summit attempt at 4:30 a.m. (The remaining three planned an attempt for the following day.) The four reached Denali Pass at 10-11 a.m. Their water bottles were frozen at this time. They continued on up and reached 19,500 feet (near Archdeacon’s Tower) at 5-6 p.m. At this point Paul Willis felt exhausted and decided to descend. Don Wheeler went with him and the two descended to 18,500 feet where they bivouaced for the night. They had two bivouac sacs and a sleeping bag but no stove. The temperature at 4 a.m. the next morning was —26 degrees and they awoke dehydrated and with frostbitten finger tips. They returned to the 17,200 foot camp at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, May 11. When Paul Willis and Wheeler left Thompson and Dave Willis on the evening of the 10th, Thompson and D. Willis continued on toward the summit. They reached within 200 feet of the summit before deciding they had to stop and bivouac for the night. Thompson was feeling very bad and could not zip up his sleeping bag. While Willis helped him with that, Willis’ two bivouac sacs were blown away and lost. They had a stove (Optimus 111B) but could not get it to work. Willis slept that night with no sleeping bag and severely froze his hands.

On the morning of the 11th, Thompson (feeling very sick, disoriented, dizzy) and Willis (with frozen hands) began their descent. It took Thompson over an hour to put on Willis’ crampons for him. They started down slowly in poor visibility conditions. They veered off the route toward the Harper Glacier until Thompson fell and slid some distance. Willis arrested his fall then belayed John back up. They tried to regain their route but were caught by the night and were forced to bivouac a second night above Archdeacon’s Tower.

On May 12, Thompson and Willis were discovered by climbers Doug Scott and Dougal Haston. Thompson and Willis were both severely frostbitten by this time. Scott and Haston had just completed a climb of the South face which involved six bivouacs. They were unable to assist Thompson and Willis, but since Thompson and Willis told them they had partners at Denali Pass with a radio, Scott and Haston descended to there to get assistance for the two. (Thompson and Willis had the radio with them, but apparently did not remember—they never used it.) There was no one at Denali Pass so they continued on to 17,200 where they met five members of the Crampoon party. Don Wheeler and Bill Sare went up to assist Thompson and Willis while the other three descended to 14,200 with Scott and Haston. Wheeler and Sare met Thompson and Willis at 18,500 feet and brought them down to the 17,200 foot camp that day. (Source: Bob Gerhard, McKinley Park.)

Analysis. The four members of the original summit party apparently used poor judgment in continuing above Denali Pass with no water and after taking so long to reach the pass. (In good conditions, the trip from 17,200 to Denali Pass should take only three hours.) When they continued, they apparently became dehydrated, hypothermic, and affected by the altitude until they were no longer able to make good judgments. They should not have continued up late in the day when it became apparent that they would have to bivouac.

Splitting the party at 19,500 feet was a very dangerous thing to do. They were already a weak party and when they split it nearly became a fatal mistake for two members. (Source: Bob Gerhard, McKinley Park.)

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