American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Slip on Snow, Alaska, Mt. McKinley

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

SLIP ON SNOW

Alaska, Mt. McKinley

Sang-Don Ko (30), Ii-Kyo Lee (24), Hun-Kyu Park (30), and Un-Young Kim (45) were members of the Korean Mount McKinley Expedition. Before the start of their climb they joined forces with Harry Maringas and Yung Chu of the Korean-American Expedition. The six planned to climb the West Rib route and flew from Talkeetna to the Southeast Fork on May 15, 1979.

By May 29, the group had reached the 14,000-foot level on the West Rib route. On this day, Ko, Lee and Park decided to push for the summit while the other three moved the high camp to the 15,500-foot level. Ko, Lee, and Park left for the summit with light packs and with plans to camp at 18,000 feet on the descent. At 7:15 p.m., the summit team radioed to the lower team that they had reached the summit and were descending, but were very tired. (The Edmonds Climbing Club—a group of two—was camped at the 18,000 feet level of the West Rib on May 29. They told Dave Buchanan later that they saw the three Koreans ascending the route and that all three were wearing crampons but that they had no water with them. They also said that the weather was bad enough that day that they did not want to climb.)

At 8:30 p.m., Diane Gay, a guide working for Alaska Mountain Guides, saw an object falling down a snow gully off the West Rib. Near the bottom the object split into several pieces. Through binoculars, it was suspected that at least one person had fallen. By 10 p.m., guides Ray Genet and Brian Okonek had left the camp at 14,200 feet and begun the climb up to the accident site about 15,200 feet. (Gay, Genet, and Okonek were at the 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress route.) Genet and Okonek had to travel to the accident site in near whiteout conditions.

Genet and Okonek arrived at the accident site about midnight. They found Ko dead with massive head injuries, Lee still alive with head injuries and no movement or apparent feeling below the waist, and Park still alive with frostbite and a dislocation of the right knee (severely deformed). They spent several hours there preparing a snow cave for Lee and then transported Park to the West Buttress camp at 14,200 feet, arriving there at 4:58 a.m., May 30. Dr. Ken Bing of the ACC Expedition assumed the care of Park at this point.

Brian Okonek and five other climbers climbed back up to the accident site to evacuate Lee, leaving the West Buttress camp sometime between 6:15 and 7:30 a.m. When they arrived at the site, they found that Lee had died. The bodies of both Lee and Ko were then brought back down to the West Buttress camp. The dog teams of the Reddington Expediton assisted in transporting the two bodies across the basin to the camp.

At 9 a.m., May 30, Cliff Hudson in Talkeetna received a radio call from the three members of the Korean party who had moved their high camp up the day before. They were not aware that the other three had been involved in an accident. Dave Buchanan talked to the group via CB radio and requested them to move to the West Buttress camp and provide assistance in the rescue operation.

The NPS was notified of the incident at 5:30 a.m., May 30, when guide Ray Genet called Dave Buchanan in Talkeetna via Radio Anchorage. Radio reception was very poor on this and subsequent communications, but Buchanan was able to understand that one climber was killed, two were injured, and that a helicopter was needed. Because of the need for medical attention, the decision was made at Park Headquarters to request military assistance, instead of using commercial helicopters. RCC was notified at 6:15 a.m. Poor weather at 14,000 feet precluded an immediate evacuation, but an Air Force C-130 was in the air over the mountain by 10 a.m. to watch the weather and to provide a communications link. Two Army Chinooks arrived in Talkeetna at 11 a.m. to wait for good weather. At 12:30 p.m., the Chinooks departed Talkeetna with Dave Buchanan aboard. One Chinook landed at the West Buttress camp at 1:15 p.m., and Park and the bodies of Ko and Lee were loaded aboard.

The helicopters arrived at Elmendorf AFB at 2:30 p.m. Park was transferred to Providence Hospital and the bodies of Ko and Lee were taken to Evergreen Mortuary. Dave Buchanan was transported back to Talkeetna by Army Chinook later in the day.

On May 30, Jack Kim called me in the evening to report that he had just talked by telephone with Park in the hospital. He said that Park told him that he (Park) had been descending in the lowest (leading) position on the rope when the accident occurred. Park stated that the snow he was standing on slipped from underneath him and he fell. He expected that Lee and Ko would be able to immediately arrest his fall, but they did not and all three slid and fell from 2,000 to 2,500 feet down the mountain.

On June 8, 1979, I called Dr. William Mills in Anchorage to find out the condition of Park. Dr. Mills gave me the following information.

Park was admitted to Providence Hospital with thawed hands, frozen feet, and a badly dislocated right knee. (Dr. Bing, who treated Park on the mountain, had thawed Park’s frozen hands in 103° water when it became apparent that they were thawing spontaneously. Bing kept Park’s feet packed in snow and ice in order to keep them frozen. They were still packed in snow when Park was admitted to the hospital.)

Mills performed surgery on Park’s knee. He found that the knee was almost completely dislocated. The lower leg was attached to the upper leg only by the skin around the knee and by one ligament. The popliteal artery was severed. Mills stated that anyone whose popliteal artery was severed for more than six hours would lose that lower leg, but because of Park’s frostbite and hypothermic condition, Mills was able to successfully rejoin the artery and save the leg at least 18 hours after the injury. He said that Park was likely to lose some toe tips from both feet and would lose all fingers to the first joint on the left hand from frostbite. Mills felt that the fact that Park’s feet were packed in snow probably resulted in saving his right lower leg and diminished greatly the severity of his frostbite. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mt. McKinley National Park)

Analysis

It may be surmised that ascending 6,000 feet in one day took a toll on these climbers. It should also be noted that there were several other climbing groups in the vicinity who were able to assist in the rescue, and, fortunately, a doctor who provided excellent care. (Source: J. Williamson)

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