Fall on Ice, Placed No Protection, Alaska, Chugach State Park

Publication Year: 1979.


Alaska, Chugach State Park

On April 21, John M. “Mickey” Hill (30) and Charles Head were climbing on “Ripple” a 200-foot vertical frozen waterfall (70°-90°) located in the Eklutna River Canyon. Mickey had led out some 30 feet up a 90-degree curtain from a belay stance approximately 55 feet up the falls when he began to have apparent trouble. As he approached the top of the curtain, his axe placements came with increased difficulty in the brittle ice conditions; the rope became caught up on his left foot. He freed his foot with a few frustrated shakes and attempted another step upward when his crampons cut out entirely. The axe placements failed and he fell backward. No protection had been placed. He fell free, head first for 30 feet where he struck a glancing blow on the belay ledge, fell an additional 15 feet to a four-foot ice ledge, landing on his head and right shoulder. The force of the fall slammed him, head first, into the rock wall on the right-hand side of the ledge. Hill was knocked unconscious and remained immobile. Charlie Head, on belay, had hauled in any extra rope and was secure in his belay stance. Rangers Pete Panarese and Dan Hourihan of Chugach State Park observed the fall from below while awaiting their turn on the waterfall. Head was advised to tie Hill off, rappel down, clear the airway (the victim’s silence had been replaced by a hoarse rasping), and assess his overall condition. Hourihan left to alert medical and manpower assistance. Panarese climbed the 40 feet to the ice ledge. Hill was still unconscious, but struggling and had to be restrained while being treated by Panarese. After securing the victim to the ice with Head’s help, Panarese surveyed his condition, and found no evidence of fractures, bleeding, swelling, ear, nose or eye damage, pupil dilation or abnormal pulse. Hill began to incoherently complain of stomach pain. Panarese made the decision to move Hill to safety by lowering him. Head climbed back to the belay stance and retied ropes for the lowering operation. Hypothermia compounded by shock was the greatest threat to Hill at this time and the ice ledge did not provide room for moving Hill to insulate and comfort him. Head lowered Hill to the surface of the frozen river with Panarese acting as barrel man to keep him upright. He was then laid on all available packs and equipment and resurveyed by Panarese. He was incoherent, shivering, and his eyes would not open at the same time. All efforts were focused upon stabilizing the hypothermia slide.

Meanwhile, Hourihan had raced 1½ miles to his vehicle, driven to a nearby telephone and alerted the Alaska State Troopers. He advised them to alert the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at Elmendorf Air Force Base to dispatch a helicopter with paramedics on board, an additional vehicular paramedic unit with manpower, and the Chugach State Park Rangers. All units were requested to respond with a Stokes litter, if available, to facilitate first-on-scene deployment. The Thunderbird Falls parking lot was designated as the marshalling area. Units of the Alaska State Troopers, Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Ambulance, and Chugach State Park responded. A communications relay base was established at the parking lot with Ranger Mike Rodak as Coordinator. An EMT II medical team was organized and dispatched; Hourihan, with a Chugiak Volunteer Fireman, a Stokes litter and a State Trooper portable radio, departed for the accident scene. Approximately 1½ hours after the accident, Hourihan and the fireman arrived back at the “Ripple” site. Also at this time, an Air Force HH-3 Helicopter arrived on the scene, but was unable to effect a hoist extraction at that location due to the narrow, steep canyon walls. Hill was carefully secured in the litter and Panarese, Hourihan, Head and Dennis began carrying the 200- pound victim toward the marshalling area.

Some 2½ hours after the fall the party met the ground medical team at the confluence of the Eklutna River and Thunderbird Creek. This was the first area suitable for helicopter utilization and the HH-3 began to circle into position with radio coordination. Hill was becoming increasingly hypothermic and incoherent. The medical team attempted to start him on an I.V. saline solution, but was unsuccessful due to his dropping core temperature. The HH-3 lowered an Air Force paramedic who confirmed the need for immediate evacuation. A litter was lowered, Hill was hoisted away; 2¾ hours after the accident he was admitted to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where he remained for four days with a serious concussion, some minor cerebral spinal fluid leakage and retrograde amnesia. The HH-3 crew from the 71st Aero-Space Rescue and Recovery Squadron (A.R.R.S.) was credited with a “save” of Hill’s life due to the critical timeliness of the helicopter evacuation. (Source: Rangers P. Panarese and D. Hourihan, Chugach State Park)


Although a strong and capable climber, this was Hill’s first season of technical ice climbing. Perhaps use of protection would have minimized the results of a fall, and averted the “all or nothing” aspects of this type of day climb. Sophisticated ice tools enable strong climbers to quickly ascend beyond their personal learned capabilities and limitations—a knowledge so important in the decision-making process of highly experienced individuals. The “speed” philosophy of ice climbing endorsed by climbers with years of experience and situational know-how should not be confused with the realities and personal unknowns of climbing apprenticeship. Additionally, it should be noted that Hill’s use of a helmet certainly prevented this accident from being much more serious or, possibly, fatal. (Source: Rangers P. Panarese and D. Hourihan, Chugach State Park)