American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Climbing Unroped, Alaska, Mt. McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981


Alaska, Mt. McKinley

The four-member “Savoyards” Climbing expedition (a group from France) registered in the spring of 1980 to make a traverse of Mount McKinley—ascending the West Buttress route and descending the Muldrow Glacier route. The party arrived in Talkeetna in late April and flew up to the southeast fork landing strip on April 27. On May 11 around 1 p.m., an accident occurred at the 18,000-foot level of the mountain which resulted in the death of Gerold Herrmann (43). The National Park Service was notified of the incident by radio on May 13. The remaining members of the Savoyards expedition moved Herrmann’s body down to the 14,000-foot level, from which it was evacuated to Talkeetna by Akland Helicopters on May 16, along with the three other members of the expedition. An interview with party member Jerome Bevins revealed the following.

Bevins reported that the accident occurred on May 11 between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. All four members of the party were ferrying a load from the 17,200-foot camp to Denali Pass. All four were unroped but had crampons on and were carrying ice axes. Bevins and Herrmann had dropped their load at Denali Pass and were climbing back down to the 17,200-foot camp. Bonzi and Tissandier were still ascending. Ten minutes after leaving Denali Pass, Herrmann apparently stumbled or lost his balance and fell, tumbling down the steep, hard snow slope. Bevins said that Herrmann was only “two feet” behind (above) him at the time. No one saw the very start of Herrmann’s fall; the first thing Bevins saw was Herrmann sliding down past him.

Bevins said that it took the three of them approximately ten minutes to descend the slope and find Herrmann’s body in a shallow crevasse. He said that Herrmann had extensive facial injuries and that he appeared dead but that they performed cardio-pulmonary resuscitation for “about thirty minutes.” Herrmann did not revive.

During the interview on May 16, Bevins expressed considerable irritation with the Park Service for the lack of assistance provided during the rescue. Bevins felt that a Chinook should have been provided to pick the body up at 17,200 feet. He was told again (as he had been over the radio during the incident) that the military would not get involved in body recoveries. Bevins complained that the Park Service had not airdropped a rope to his group at 17,200 feet to make it easier for them to lower Herrmann’s body down to 14,200 feet. At no time during the incident did Bevins or anyone else request the airdrop of any rope. Bevins said that if he were involved in a similar incident again, he would lie and tell us that the climber was injured instead of dead so that we would have to dispatch a Chinook. Bevins said that he couldn’t see any reason for the Park Service to require climbers to register if we weren’t going to help them when they needed it. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

(Editor’s Note: Many European climbers have a different attitude than Americans towards rescue responsibilities. Foreign climbers are coming to Alaska in increasing numbers, so we are attempting to communicate to them (a) the remote and different climatic nature of Alaska’s mountains in comparison to Europe’s, and (b) the experienced American climbers general attitude of not relying upon public agencies and tax dollars for aid in time of difficulty.)

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