American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cerebral Edema, Frostbite, Inadequate Equipment (Food), Bad Weather, Slip on Ice, Alaska, Mt. McKinley

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


Alaska, Mt. McKinley

On June 8, 1980, Simon McCartney (24) and Jack Roberts began a climb on the Southwest Face of Mt. McKinley from the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. They took one week’s food for the climb. On June 15, they ran out of food at 17,700 feet while climbing the major snowfield, known as the Clod Face. Both felt very fit at this point in the climb and, with the technical difficulties of the new route behind them, they decided to continue to the summit.

The next day they reached the Cassin Ridge at an elevation of about 19,500 feet. McCartney had some headaches on the climb to the Cassin and noticed a lack of coordination and balance upon arrival. They set up a camp at this point. Over the next two days McCartney s condition deteriorated and they were unable to continue the climb. These were their third and fourth days without food.

On June 19 two climbers on the Cassin, Mike Helms and Bob Kandiko, reached the campsite a 2 p.m. Kandiko reported that McCartney was semiconscious and had a body temperature of 96°F. The decision was made that Kandiko would stay with McCartney while Helms and Roberts climbed the rest of the Cassin and descended the West Buttress for help. Roberts had frostbitten several toes in the first week out but could still climb. They departed at 3:30 p.m. in very poor weather, leaving Kandiko and McCartney with one freeze-dried dinner. Several hours later they reached the summit ridge at 20,120 feet and began descending to the West Buttress.

During the day on June 20, Kandiko continued to give McCartney large quantities of hot liquids and raised his body temperature to 98.6°. Meanwhile, Helms and Roberts had reached the high camp on the West Buttress (17,200 feet).

On June 21, the National Park Service (NPS) was notified of the situation. At 5:40 p.m., Helms contacted the NPS with a plan to rescue McCartney using the climbers available at the high camp and requested an air drop of food, fuel and other equipment. On the Cassin Ridge, McCartney had improved enough so that Kandiko felt they could reach the top of the ridge and descend the West Buttress. As they were packing, two climbers, Rob Milne and Brian Sprunt of Scotland, reached the campsite. Milne and Sprunt reported that Kandiko told them they would be right behind them and follow their steps to the top. Milne and Sprunt were not told that McCartney had been sick or might not be able to make the ascent. The Scots left some mint cake and, since it was too cold to wait for Kandiko and McCartney, continued up. Kandiko and McCartney began their ascent within an hour of the Scots. McCartney could barely stand up and, after climbing only 200 vertical feet, Kandiko decided they could not go on in the deteriorating weather. They returned to 19,500 feet and set up camp.

Meanwhile, on the West Buttress, Helms had contacted several groups including the Mountain Trip guided parties led by Nick Parker and Vern Tejas. They offered to check the Cassin Ridge from the summit. At 7:05 p.m., the NPS was notified that Mountain Trip could see McCartney and Kandiko moving up the ridge. At 9 p.m., McCartney and Kandiko were reported to be heading down to Denali Pass while a party was getting ready to go up and assist. The NPS contacted the Rescue Coordination Center to check on the possibility of a helicopter pickup and were informed that all high altitude Chinook helicopters were grounded.

Early on June 22, very little information was relayed from the upper mountain. No one had made contact with the two climbers (Milne and Sprunt) to ascertain their identity. At 1 p.m., Ranger Roger Robinson flew with Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi in a Cessna 185. At 1:45 p.m., they spotted two climbers on the Cassin Ridge below the campsite. The first person on the rope waved to the plane.

McCartney and Kandiko were descending the ridge when the plane spotted them at 18,400 feet. Kandiko decided their best chance was to attempt to descend the ridge. As they came up, he and Helms had passed a Japanese party lower down on the Cassin. The Japanese were placing fixed lines on the ascent. Kandiko thought he would reach them about 16,000 feet. He reported that McCartney could only glissade down while he belayed. They stopped where they were spotted and set up a camp in the hope of getting a food drop or being rescued by helicopter.

Robinson was able to contact Mountain Trip at 2:20 p.m. They reported that they did not see McCartney and Kandiko from the summit. Helms reported that Roberts could descend to the landing site and did not require a rescue.

June 23 was a beautiful day. Kandiko and McCartney decided to wait at 18,400 for a food drop or a rescue. When nothing happened, their morale dropped and they decided they were on their own.

Milne and Sprunt arrived at 17,200 feet on the West Buttress and reported that Kandiko and McCartney were moving and seemed to be OK.

The next day, Kandiko and McCartney descended to 16,800 feet. At old campsites they dug for food and found some old tea bags and some prunes. That evening they ran their stove several hours just for warmth. An attempt to brew some toothpaste soup for nourishment was hardly successful. Kandiko considered descending on his own as McCartney was very weak. After much thought, he concluded that it would be safer to stay roped to McCartney and not to leave him alone.

On June 25, they continued their descent through a rock band. After losing two ropes in rappels, they met the four-member “Freaks Expedition” from Pennsylvania. That evening at 15,800 feet, they had their first food in six days. The weather was generally poor. They continued to descend on the 26th to 14,200 feet where they met “Tokyo Unyro-Kai Expedition.” Using the Japanese cb radio, they contacted base camp caretaker Francis Randall to request an airdrop of food, since both the Japanese and Freaks parties were almost out. At 3:30 p.m., the message was relayed to Talkeetna Air Taxi and on to NPS Mountaineering Rangers Dave Buchanan and Roger Robinson. An Evergreen 205 Helicopter was already en route to Talkeetna to refuel for an evacuation at 14,200 feet on the West Buttress, so an airdrop of food and fuel was put together for the flight. Buchanan flew cover with pilot Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi while Robinson accompanied the helicopter to make the airdrop. The airdrop was completed at 4:30 p.m. and the 205 went on to make the pickup on the West Buttress. The three parties feasted on the airdrop that evening. McCartney began to have severe pain in his feet at the camp and was almost unable to walk.

The weather deteriorated the next day as the Freaks, McCartney and Kandiko continued their descent down the arete and the Japanese Couloir. The fixed lines left by the Japanese facilitated McCartney’s descent on very painful feet. They set up camp that evening at 11,700 feet on the northeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

On June 28, they continued to descend the glacier under conditions of poor visibility. McCartney and Kandiko were alternating leads while the Japanese were coming down the glacier in a whiteout. At 10,800 feet, Kandiko took the lead and immediately slipped and fell on an icy slope. In the fall, he pulled McCartney off his feet and both of them slid down the slope. Kandiko was able to stop but not before McCartney landed 120 feet down a crevasse, hanging upside down and unconscious. The skis on his back had pinned him between the walls of the crevasse. He regained consciousness long enough to right himself before passing out again.

The “Twin Cities Health Club Expedition,” several hundred feet lower down, had observed the fall and climbed up to assist. With their help, Kandiko and the Japanese climbers were able to haul McCartney up. He regained consciousness on the edge. In the fall he suffered a broken wrist and a possible concussion. McCartney was brought down to the Twin Cities camp at 10,600 feet while the Freaks Expedition and the Japanese continued to descend the northeast fork to summon help. At 10 p.m., the Freaks contacted Ranger Buchanan and Steve Porter on a patrol at 8,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. Buchanan notified Randall at base camp, who in turn directly contacted Ranger Bob Gerhard at McKinely Park on a NPS HF unit. A flyover was scheduled for the next day.

On June 29 the weather was poor, but contact was established between the Twin Cities expedition and Buchanan using a relay by a party at 16,500 feet on the West Rib. McCartney could not descend any further and wanted a helicopter. This was relayed to the NPS and plans were made for an evacuation. Attempts were made by Buchanan to coordinate a ground party to bring McCartney down the icefall below the Twin Cities camp, but both the Japanese and Freaks expeditions declined to help. Late in the day, radio contact was lost with the

relay at 16,500 feet due to weak batteries.

The next day June 30, the weather continued to be poor. Four climbers from base camp volunteered to join Buchanan and Porter in a ground evacuation of McCartney. The group left at 10:00 a.m. and joined Buchanan and Porter at 8,000 feet at 2:30 p.m. They met a strong group of Swiss Mountain Guides descending the northeast fork at 8,800 feet. Two of them agreed to go back up and assist the ground party in the evacuation. At 7:30 p.m., the ground party arrived at the Twin Cities camp. McCartney was loaded into a Thompson utter brought up from base camp for the evacuation. At 8 p.m., the party left 11,000 feet with McCartnev. The descent went very quickly through the icefall on the northeast fork. At the base, poles were attached to the litter and four skiers took it down the glacier. The three member Aspen-Denali Expedition” joined the team lower down on the northeast fork and provided assistance. The team grew as the evacuation proceeded down the Kahiltna Glacier. The team arrived at the junction of the northeast fork and the main Kahiltna Glacier at 10:30 p.m. They left camp at 1:25 a.m. on July 1 and arrived at base camp on the southeast fork at 3:15 a.m.

Approximately thirty climbers from six countries participated in the operation.

McCartney was flown to Anchorage the next afternoon and admitted to the Thermal Unit at Providence Hospital. His injuries were diagnosed as a fractured wrist and immersion foot. The foot condition was probably due to the fact McCartney kept his boots on for almost two weeks. It was also determined that he had been suffering from cerebral edema. (Source: David Buchanan, Park Ranger, Denali National Park)


Twenty years ago, the outcome of both these expeditions probably would have been quite different. Over the past decade or so, the increase in climber traffic on Mt. McKinley and the general knowledge that technical assistance—such as helicopters—can be called upon has resulted in lives being saved that would otherwise most assuredly have been lost. It was good fortune that the climbers in trouble encountered strong climbers and climbing parties and that a helicopter capable of landing at high altitude was available.

But the situation raises some interesting questions as well. Have climbers come to rely— consciously or unconsciously—on assistance from the outside? Are climbers aware that they may find themselves spending some or all of their climbing time helping to rescue other climbers? What is the attitude of climbers in general toward the latter? These situations on Mt. McKinley are a microcosm of what is happening in expeditionary climbing all over the world.

As a closing note to the Alaska section, an excerpt from Robert Gerhard’s article, “1980: Too Many Deaths, Too Many Accidents in Mt. McKinley National Park” (Summit, Jan- uary-February, 1981) is in order:

“In all, there were sixteen search and rescue operations, which cost the National Park Service nearly $48,000. Altitude problems (pulmonary and cerebral edema), severe frostbite, and falls continue to be the most common incidents resulting in rescues. In addition, other accidents often occur which may not require a rescue. We know of at least 41 cases of frostbite, 27 of which were serious enough to warrant hospitalization or the attention of a physician. We assume that there were more cases of which we did not hear. This year, there was more than the normal climbing activity in April. Nearly one in five climbers on Mount McKinley in that month suffered from frostbite. April may have more clear weather than in the summer, but it is also much colder and winds can be stronger.

“Although record numbers of climbers came to Mount McKinley this year, poor weather and lower success rates seemed to predominate. Three years ago, in 1977, 80% of all climbers on the West Buttress made it»to the summit. This year, fewer than half were successful. Of the 659 climbers who attempted Mount McKinley by all routes, only 283 made it to the top. Of 30 climbers on Mount Foraker, 13 were successful.” (Source: J. Williamson)

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