FALL ON SNOW, CLIMBING UNROPED, ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Alaska, Mount McKinley
Nicholas Collins (age unknown) was a member of the three-man British McKinley expedition on the West Buttress route of Mount McKinley. On April 3, 1981, the group was flown into basecamp on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna by Doug Geeting. On April 14 the group moved their camp up to 16,400 feet on the West Buttress. On the ascent to 16,400 feet, Collins was having problems with his crampons and neoprene overboots. At 16,400 feet, he started showing symptoms of altitude illness (lassitude, dizziness, headache) and spent a restless night.
On April 15, the group decided to descend due to Collins’ altitude problems. Collins descended without crampons and was unroped from the rest of the team. At 3:00 p.m. the group passed the fixed lines at 15,000 feet. Collins then slipped and fell on a hard, packed snow surface; he slid over a small open bergschrund, before starting a self-arrest. He stopped himself 30 feet after the intial fall and knocked three molars out of the upper left part of his jaw after the edge of his ax caught him in the mouth. The other members of the party helped Collins down to 14,200 feet where they set up camp at 4:30 p.m.
At 6:30 p.m., a US Army CH-47 (Chinook) helicopter from the 242nd Aviation Company, Fort Wainwright, landed in the basin at 14,200 feet on a training exercise. The pilot was the team leader, Chief Warrant Officer Terry Bridgeman. The climbers flagged the helicopter and informed Bridgeman of the situation. Bridgeman was told that Collins was unable to drink or eat due to his facial injuries. Bridgeman assessed the situation and decided that in view of the lateness of the day and the changing weather conditions and, since they were already on the scene, they would take Collins out by helicopter. The helicopter and Collins arrived in Talkeetna at 7:00 p.m.
The two remaining members of the group continued their attempt on Mount McKinley, reaching 20,000 feet before being flown out by Doug Geeting on April 21. (Source: Dave Buchanan, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
A helicopter rescue was probably not warranted in this case but was reasonable due to the fact that the helicopter (on a training exercise) was already on the scene. Had the helicopter not been there, Collins’ party could not have called for assistance, since they did not have a two-way radio with them.
Collins had been suffering mildly from altitude illness. It probably would have been a reasonable precaution for the party to rope together and have Collins travel in the middle or lower positions on the rope. (Source: Dave Buchanan, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)