EXPOSURE, EXHAUSTION, HYPOTHERMIA, INEXPERIENCE, BAD WEATHER
Alaska, Mt. McKinley
On May 15, 1980, Manfred Loibl and Margaret Huschke (ages unknown) of Munich, Germany, were flown to the Kahiltna Glacier on Mt. McKinley by Talkeetna Air Taxi. The couple were on holiday in Alaska and apparently had not initially planned an ascent of Mt. McKinley until they arrived in Fairbanks.
They arrived in Talkeetna on May 14 or 15. They both rented vapor barrier boots and crampons from Genet Expeditions and borrowed snowshoes from Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT). Both Doug Geeting and Sonny Kragness of tat were concerned by the ill-prepared- ness of the couple in regard to equipment. Kragness asked if they had contacted the National Park Service (NPS) mountaineering rangers, and they replied that their papers were all in order. During this period, both rangers were at Park Headquarters for training. The couple had not registered with the nps earlier and left very little information beyond an address with TAT. They carried no radio and planned fourteen days on the mountain. Other parties on the mountain at the same time reported that Loibl was an extremely strong climber. He carried very heavy loads, made double carries on several days, and broke trail for very long stretches without rest. He was described as always pushing and seemed to expect Huschke to keep up. (Information from Genet DAV Expedition and Boulder/Jackson Expedition.)
At 14,200 feet on May 24, Huschke talked at length with the Boulder/Jackson Expedition consisting of Steve Pomerance, Ken Jern, and Steve Shea. She seemed concerned about climbing conditions higher on the mountain and was interested in other climbers’ opinions.
On May 25, the couple moved up to the high camp at 17,200 feet. Several expeditions reported that Loibl was very strong on this day and that Huschke could barely keep up with him. Reports are conflicting, but it is known that Loibl made two carries from 14,000 to 16,000 or 17,000 feet that day.
They set up camp at 17,200 feet in the first basin near the rocks at the camp entrance. They set up a small red tent with a silver-colored tent fly.
May 26 was a marginal day. Several parties went to the top, including the Swiss Denali Expedition of 11 members, led by Hans Brunner. They returned to the high camp at 9 p.m. Brunner recalls a discussion with Loibl and Huschke in which they asked his recommendations as to what to take on the summit attempt. He advised them to take a sleeping bag, shovel, and other bivouac gear. One German climber, Misha Saleki, who spent a considerable amount of time with the couple reported that Loibl and Huschke attempted the summit on Monday but turned back at Denali Pass when they were too tired to go on in poor weather conditions. No one else at the high camp could confirm this report.
On Tuesday, May 27, Loibl was up at 3 a.m. It was good weather. He woke up Herrman Wolf of the Genet DAV Expedition to see if they would join him. Wolf declined and the DAV climbers did not begin their ascent until at least three hours later. Loibl and Huschke left between 4 and 5 a.m. carrying a rucksack with their silver tent fly and wearing parkas and windpants over wool pants. Sleeping bags were left at the high camp.
The next party to meet the couple was the Chicago Denali Expedition at Denali Pass. The couple seemed to be very tired and were resting in rocks above the pass (Stephen Fossett, CDE). The two Chicago climbers continued on up.
The next climber who reported seeing the couple was the German, Saleki. He had reached the summit in early afternoon and was descending when he met Loibl and Huschke justabove the large basin on the summit plateau. He reported that they were exhausted and asked for food. Huschke told him they had forgotten their food sack so Saleki gave her some chocolate. Loibl wanted to know how far it was to the top. Saleki told him two hours which seemed to upset Loibl very much.
Six members of the DAV Expedition, including Wolf, their guide, met the couple on the summit ridge about 30 meters below the top at 4 p.m. Both climbers were extremely exhausted but wanted to continue to the top. The weather was beginning to deteriorate at this point. The six DAV climbers plus one Swiss climber together with Loibl and Huschke reached the top at 4:30 p.m. They spent a half hour on the summit resting and taking pictures. The weather became worse and, according to Wolf, when they left at 5 p.m., the temperature was —15° to —20°C with 30 kph winds and less than 100-meter visibility. Wolf asked Loibl and Huschke if they would like to rope up with the rest of the party for the descent, but they declined saying they preferred to rest a little longer. The route down was well wanded and, as Wolf was concerned about his own party in the deteriorating weather, he decided to descend.
Loibl and Huschke had left their rucksack in the basin below the summit. Wolf had passed it on the ascent approximately 2½ hours below the summit. In the poor visibility, however, he did not notice it on the way down.
The DAV party arrived at 17,200 feet at 8:30 that evening. The weather became very bad that night high on the mountain with very high winds and Loibl and Huschke did not return to the high camp. Brunner reported that they had a bad snow saw and shovel and would have had difficulty digging in.
On May 28, Mike Donohue of Genet Expeditions radioed to Kahiltna Base that Loibl and Huschke had not returned. There were 20 plus climbers at 17,200 feet. One had severe frostbite on his feet and was unable to walk and another had altitude sickness.
On May 29, arrangements were made with Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi to fly to the summit area as soon as the weather cleared. At 3:30 p.m. Ranger Buchanan and Geeting were airborne. The red tent was spotted at 17,000 feet with no activity in the area. The Cessna 185 continued up to summit area. Around 4:10 p.m., two lifeless figures were spotted at 19,300 feet to the northwest of the Archdeacon’s Tower. One was in an all red and one in a blue and red parka. The two figures appeared to be roped together. There seemed to be a blue pack uphill from the pair on a slight gradient. Three passes were made in the course of 10-15 minutes and no movement was seen. No fresh tracks were seen in the area.
The Fantasy Ridge Expedition, led by Mike Covington, had earlier volunteered to bring the bodies down to the 14,000-foot level for evacuation. On June 4, the expedition reached the summit via the West Rib and descended the same way but did not see the bodies. They did report that three Oregon climbers had also reached the top via the West Buttress and that a group of Austrian climbers was near the summit, also via the West Buttress. Neither party mentioned whether they had seen the bodies or not. These were apparently the first parties to reach the summit since Loibl and Huschke perished.
On June 8, Rangers Bob Gerhard and Randy Armstrong flew over the summit. At 2:30 p.m., the bodies were spotted in the same location as reported earlier.
On July 2, a party from Genet Expeditions positively identified the bodies and placed them in a nearby crevasse. Personal items were returned to park rangers in Talkeetna. (Source: David Buchanan, Park Ranger, Denali National Park)
Again this year, many foreign climbers had difficulty on Mt. McKinley. Other narratives will describe more examples of climbers who have perhaps underestimated the conditions which Alaskan mountains present. (Source: J. Williamson)