Alaska, Mount McKinley
John Waterman (28) disappeared while on a solo climb of Mt. McKinley in April 1981. For several years, Waterman had been planning a solo ascent of the mountain in winter and had made several unsuccessful attempts in previous winter seasons. In early March, Waterman showshoed into the Sheldon Amphitheater of the Ruth Glacier. He then spent several weeks in the area working on equipment and talking with other groups. A Fairbanks climber and friend of Waterman’s, Kate Bull, described him as “being less cautious and more run down” than usual. Waterman contacted Cliff Hudson of Hudson Air Service to bring some food to the glacier from Talkeetna. Hudson checked the cabin Waterman had lived in, found some boxes and flew them in. Unfortunately, they were not boxes of food but boxes of Waterman’s climbing equipment and other personal possessions. Hudson recalls that during this period, Waterman also returned the CB radio he usually borrowed from Cliff for climbs. He told Cliff he didn’t think he needed it for this trip.
On April 1, Waterman left the Mountain House in the Sheldon Amphitheater and headed for the northwest fork of the Ruth Glacier and the East Buttress. Jay Kerr, a climber in the area, contacted Waterman as he headed up the glacier. Kerr reports that Waterman told him he had 14 days of food (consisting of powdered milk, honey, sugar and flour), a bivi sack, snowmobile suit, no tent or sleeping bag, VB boots, a red plastic sled, snowshoes, blue pants and a blue jacket. He also had approximately 20 wands for marking trail.
Waterman told Kerr that he planned to gain the East Buttress near a point 11,920 feet up on the ridge, climb the ridge to Thayer Basin and continue on to the summit. The descent would be made via the Harper and Muldrow Glaciers to Wonder Lake on the north side of the Alaska Range. He expressed an interest in climbing a steep gully near Peak 11,920 but also indicated that he was interested in the easiest way to gain the ridge. Kerr, who felt that Waterman was acting “strange but not suicidal,” last saw Waterman heading up the northwest fork between Peak 11,300 and Mount Dan Beard and taking a beeline course through the crevasses. Kerr felt that, as an unroped climber in a heavily crevassed area, Waterman was not taking very many precautions.
On April 4, a National Park Service (NPS) patrol consisting of Dave Buchanan, Roger Robinson and Scott Gill skied up the west fork of the Ruth Glacier. Due to high winds and snowfall on April 2, the tracks left by Kerr on April 1 were extremely difficult to follow. Although the NPS patrol made an effort to locate Waterman’s tracks on the northwest Fork, they were not visible.
The next group to go into the area was a guided party of three led by Mike Covington of Fantasy Ridge Mountain Guides. On April 7, they headed up the northwest fork of the Ruth Glacier with the intention of climbing the Southeast Spur of Mount McKinley. They noticed a single set of tracks that were either ski tracks or those left by someone pulling a sled. Covington felt that the tracks only went up the glacier and did not come back down. They also seemed to be oriented more toward the East Buttress than toward other routes on the Southeast Spur or up the northwest fork. Because the area was very windswept from a storm the previous week, it was very hard to distinguish the tracks and no campsite was seen. From interviews with other climbers in the area, it appears that Waterman was the only one to travel up the northwest fork prior to Covington’s group. Due to high avalanche conditions in the area, Covington eventually turned back on the Southeast Spur.
On April 14, the possibility that Waterman might be overdue was discussed by Mountaineering Rangers Bob Gerhard and Dave Buchanan. Waterman had contacted Gerhard earlier in the winter inquiring about the use of the NPS patrol cabins on the north side of the range for emergency use. Gerhard replied that they were available for this purpose. The rangers decided to check these cabins as soon as it could be confirmed that Waterman was still out beyond his food supply.
Meanwhile, high altitude US Army Chinook helicopters from the 242nd Aviation Company, Fort Wainwright, were making test landings on Denali during the first two weeks of April. Chief Warrant Officer Terry Bridgeman was notified of the possibility of a solo climber in the area and was requested to have his flight crews keep an eye out for Waterman or anything unusual during their tests. On April 15 and 19, NPS Ranger Robinson and SCA Scott Gill accompanied these flights as they flew patterns over the vicinity of the East Buttress, the Southeast Spur, the South Buttress, and the Harper and Muldrow Glaciers of Mount McKinley. On April 15, Bridgeman flew with Robinson for two hours and sighted only Covington’s tracks in the area of the East Buttress. On April 19, Robinson again flew with Bridgeman for two hours in good weather and checked the Harper Glacier and Kars- tens Ridge. There was no sign of Waterman. Air services in Talkeetna were notified of Waterman’s plans and asked to report any sighting to the NPS. Also on April 14, Cliff Hudson reported that he thought he saw a single person whom he believed could have been Waterman up the west fork of the Ruth Glacier. The person was beyond the landing site in the area and next to some avalanche debris. Kerr, who was in that area at the time, did not see any tracks and was not aware of anyone else in the area other than his party.
On April 18, a pilot from Talkeetna Air Taxi confirmed that the excess boxes of gear Waterman had left at the Mountain House on April 1 were still there and untouched. On April 19, Kerr and his party returned to Talkeetna from the mountain, bringing the details of Waterman’s plans. As Waterman was overdue five days beyond his food supply, Acting Mountaineering Ranger Buchanan and Acting Chief Ranger Stowers made the decision to begin a more extensive search for him.
On the morning of April 20, Cliff Hudson flew on his own for 1½ hours in good weather. He covered the East Buttress area extensively and saw no sign of Waterman. Later that morning pilot Doug Geeting made a search flight. He was accompanied by NPS personnel Buchanan, Robinson and Kogl. All the cabins along the park road were checked and no signs of activity were observed. A dog sledder from Denali Dog Tours (DDT) was observed near Toklat. Contact was made by CB with Dan Ashbrook in Kantishna who was filled in on the situation. He had not seen Waterman.
Upon arrival at Park Headquarters, Will Forsberg and Linda Johnson of DDT were contacted. They had left Kantishna several days earlier after freighting a climbing expedition to McGonagall Pass. At no time did they see any sign of Waterman although their route took them into the area through which he would have traveled to reach Wonder Lake.
Don Logan, a Fairbanks attorney and a friend of Waterman through the Alaskan Alpine Club, was contacted. He checked John’s circle of friends in the Fairbanks area; no one had heard from him in over a month. He noted that Waterman was generally “loose” about his schedules.
On April 12, Ranger Robinson made a flight with K-2 Aviation of Talkeetna. Jim Hale, a local climber, was along as an observer. Flying in clear weather, they covered a large area on the southeast, east and north sides of the mountain. A message was air dropped to an expedition on the Muldrow Glacier—the Club Alpin Marin—concerning Waterman. They signalled back they had not seen him. Radio contact was made with a party on the South Buttress but they had not seen Waterman either. Two climbers, Rick Derrick and Pat McMannis, were contacted on the west fork of the Ruth Glacier. Derrick had been with Kerr when they contacted Waterman in late March. Waterman had expressed interest in going out the Buckskin Glacier when Derrick and McMannis mentioned this possibility. On April 12, they had gone a short way up the northwest fork and noticed snowshoe tracks paralleling those left by Covington’s group. They described them as “a crazy route in and out of slots (crevasses).” The tracks appeared to have been made by an unroped climber.
A check was made of the route at the Buckskin Glacier. There were many tracks in the area, but most appeared to have been left by Kerr’s group as they climbed during late March. A flight was made out of the Ruth Glacier and all tracks on the glacier were accounted for as having been left by other parties.
On April 12, Waterman’s parents were contacted in Vermont. On April 22, the decision was made to go in with a helicopter and check the area more thoroughly. A Bell 206 was chartered from Alaska Helicopters and a flight was made with Ranger Robinson and Covington aboard. They spent three hours flying the East Buttress area in good weather. They thoroughly checked the crevasses, avalanche chutes and debris in the area. Covington spotted the approximate location of Waterman’s tracks at 7,200 feet on the glacier. An old campsite found at this elevation was probably made by Waterman. No tracks were visible beyond the campsite which appeared not to have been used for several weeks.
During the next week, several more flights were made before the search on the mountain was suspended. The Alaskan Alpine Rescue Group joined the search, and several cabins were checked on the Tokisitna River area. At the time of this report, Waterman was still missing. (Source: Dave Buchanan, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
John Waterman’s solo accomplishments made him a legendary figure of sorts. However, this attempt underlines two factors from which no solo adventurer is immune. First, the potential for an accident—especially on a heavily crevassed glacier—is greatly increased. Second, no matter how independent the solo climber may wish to be, fellow climbers will come to his or her aid, as it does not seem to be human nature to do otherwise. (Source: J. Williamson)