American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Slip on Snow, Collapsed Snow Ledge, Alaska, Mt. McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1980

SLIP ON SNOW, COLLAPSED SNOW LEDGE

Alaska, Mt. McKinley

On May 22, 1979, Ken Currens (25) and Jack Tackle (25) were climbing at 10,000 feet on the southwest face of Mt. McKinley. Their route was a ridge on the west wall of the Northwest Spur of the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier. They had been on the mountain since May 18.

At 2 a.m., Ken Currens took a 240-foot leader fall when the snow ledge he was standing on collapsed. He had run out 150 feet of rope on 50-60° ice, placing one Chouinard tubular ice screw 30 feet above his belay. The screw held the fall, leaving Currens hanging about 90 feet below Tackle. Tackle lowered Currens to the edge of the bergschrund several feet below and rappelled down to him. Currens was conscious and in great pain. He had a possible fracture of the left femur and numerous facial lacerations and abrasions. He was wearing a helmet which may have prevented serious head injury.

Tackle administered a strong pain killer and then spent the next four hours lowering Currens 200 vertical feet to an ice cave, arriving at 6 a.m. Tackle spent the next several hours making Currens comfortable, as he planned to ski out to the Mountain House for help. Tackle left the cave at 1 p.m. and arrived at the Mountain House at 4:30 p.m. Cliff Hudson was in the air and was contacted by Tackle on CB radio. Hudson landed at the Mountain House and transported Tackle to Talkeetna. Jim Sharp and Jack Tackle notified the NPS of the incident at 6:15 p.m.

In Talkeetna, a hasty rescue effort was organized as the weather appeared to be deteriorating. Tackle and two climbers—Jim Logan and Muggs Stump—were flown back in to the West Fork of the Ruth at 7 p.m. Logan and Stump flew in an Akland Helicopters, Inc. (Hughs 500) helicopter piloted by Jim Okanek. Tackle flew with Jim Sharp of Talkeetna Air Taxi in a Cessna 185. They arrived on the glacier at 7:45 p.m. and began the climb back to the ice cave, 1,200-1,500 vertical feet above them. They carried a NPS Thompson Litter and some medical supplies. They arrived at the cave about 11:30 p.m. and found Currens in sufficiently good shape to be transported back down to the glacier.

The group left the cave at 1 a.m. on May 23 and began the slow descent on steep snow and ice (50–60°), which was crevassed in spots. Runouts of 300 feet were used with Stump belaying and Tackle and Logan on the litter. They arrived on the glacier at 5 a.m. Currens’ leg was splinted at this point with two pickets.

Jim Okanek, in the Hughes 500, and Cliff Hudson, in the Cessna 185, left Talkeetna at 4:30 a.m. to make the pickup and fly cover. NPS Ranger Dave Buchanan and a climber—Ed Newville—were along with gear to privide assistance if necessary. The aircraft arrived on the scene at 5:15 a.m. The Cessna returned to the Mountain House while Okanek landed to pick up Currens and Tackle. At 6 a.m. both were transferred from the helicopter to the Cessna for the flight to Anchorage. Okanek returned to pick up Logan and Stump, while Buchanan and Newville flew back to Talkeetna with Jim Sharp. All arrived in Talkeetna by 7:30 a.m. Currens, Tackle, and Hudson arrived in Anchorage at 7:30 a.m. and Currens was taken to Teamsters Hospital. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mt. McKinley National Park)

Analysis

It is interesting to note that Tackle was able to downclimb 1,200–1,500 feet and ski ten miles unroped down the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier to the Mountain House solo without incident, a feat similar to that of Shinohara described in the previous accident narrative. When the climbing party consists of two members and one is seriously injured, the resources of each are tested to a much greater extent than if each had at least one companion. (Source: J. Williamson)

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