American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall, Inadequate Equipment, Exposure—Alaska, Mt. McKinley

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

FALL, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, EXPOSURE.—Alaska, Mt. McKinley. Joe Ebner (28), Richard Rose (41), Bill Joiner (25), and Larry Fanning (28) were members of a six-person expedition climbing Mount McKinley via the Pioneer Ridge Route. The party left Wonder Lake on June 17. By July 11, the party had reached a point above 18,000 feet on the ridge, above all the difficult climbing, and approximately one half mile from the summit of the North Peak. Two members, Swenson and Blume, who had done most of the route-finding and leading up to this point, were well ahead of the other four. They climbed over the North Peak and descended to Denali Pass. They did not rejoin members of their party for several days.

At almost 5 p.m. (on the 11th), Larry Fanning became ill. Party leader Joe Ebner put in a radio/phone patch call to a doctor at Providence Hospital in Anchorage. The doctor felt that Fanning was suffering from acute mountain sickness, not pulmonary edema, and advised that the situation was not a critical emergency, but that Fanning should move to a lower elevation as soon as possible. Ebner then called the Park Service and advised them of their situation and also asked for advice about what they should do next. Ebner stated that they did not want to continue up and over the North Peak and also did not want to descend back down Pioneer Ridge. The Sourdough Coulior, a steep gully first climbed by the Sourdough party of 1910, was suggested as a possible alternative. Ebner felt they would probably try that route and signed off. Rose and Joiner started up toward the North Peak to try to catch Swenson and Blume. They ended up bivouacking at 19,200 feet and returned the next day to join Ebner and Fanning.

The four began descending Sourdough Gully on July 12, using ice axes as anchors since they had left their pickets with the last fixed rope on Pioneer Ridge. They descended about 800 feet when an ice ax failed and all four slid and tumbled over 1500 feet down the gully. Ebner and Rose were apparently killed instantly, Fanning had a broken femur and ankle and Joiner was suspended upside down with a rope wrapped around his legs. Fanning tried repeatedly to right Joiner, but was not able to, then he moved over to Ebner and searched unsuccessfully for their radio in Ebner’s pack. (Even if he had found it, their location on the mountain would have precluded contact with Radio Fairbanks.) Joiner spent the night hanging upside down and was wearing only fingerless gloves. Fanning had no hat or gloves. (Source: Bob Gerhard, McKinley Park.)

Analysis. The party was weakened when they became separated from Swenson and Blume, the two strongest members of the party. With hindsight, it appears that the four either might have made every possible attempt to continue over the North Peak, or might have descended back down Pioneer Ridge (where they had left fixed ropes at all difficult sections and had an igloo at the next camp down). (Source: Bob Gerhard, McKinley Park.)

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