American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall into Crevasse, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1982

FALL INTO CREVASSE

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 2, 1981, James Wickwire (40) and Chris Kerrebrock (25) registered at the Tal- keetna Ranger Station to climb a route on the Wickersham Wall on Mount McKinley.

On May 22, at 11:53 a.m., Mountaineering Ranger Robert Gerhard received a phone call from Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi. Geeting said that he had just picked Wickwire up from the Peters Basin and that Wickwire had been involved in an accident. Wickwire came on to the phone and related the following information to Gerhard.

On May 8, about 3:30 p.m., Wickwire and Kerrebrock were descending the Peters Glacier at the 6,750-foot level just below Jeffery Point. At that time Kerrebrock was in the lead and Wickwire was 20–30 feet behind. Kerrebrock apparently broke through a hidden crevasse and Wickwire suddenly felt himself jerked off his feet and dragged into the crevasse. Wickwire injured his shoulder in the fall and Kerrebrock, although apparently unhurt, was tightly wedged into the crevasse. Wickwire estimated that they had fallen about 40 feet. Wickwire was able to climb out of the crevasse but then went back in to try to free Kerrebrock. Although he tried for several hours, he could not free Kerrebrock from his wedged position. Wickwire said that he finally left the crevasse at 9:30 p.m. and that Kerrebrock was still alive at that time. Wickwire said that he last heard sounds from Kerrebrock around 2:00 a.m. on May 9.

Wickwire stayed by the crevasse for about five days hoping to make radio (CB) contact with a passing aircraft. During this time, he descended into the crevasse once again to look for more food but didn’t find much. Finally he decided that he would have to walk out on his own. During the next day or so, he traveled a short distance; then he was caught in a severe four-day storm and was unable to move. After the storm cleared, he began moving again.

On the morning of May 22, as Wickwire began to ascend the steep slopes up to Peak 10,790 (near Kahiltna Pass), Geeting flew over the Peters Glacier. Wickwire was able to contact him by radio. Geeting then made a difficult landing in the Peters Basin, taxied up to Wickwire, picked him up, and flew him to Talkeetna. Wickwire then called Gerhard to relate the above information. Wickwire told him at this time that a recovery of Kerrebrock’s body would be dangerous and difficult.

On May 22, at 12:46 p.m., Gerhard contacted Kerrebrock’s mother and notified her briefly of the accident. At 1:10 p.m. he talked to Kerrebrock’s father, Jack, and gave him more details. Later in the afternoon, Gerhard flew to Talkeetna and met Wickwire. They spent several hours together discussing the accident.

On May 23, at 12:30 p.m., Wickwire and Gerhard flew from Talkeetna in a helicopter to look at the accident site and to assess the danger and difficulty of a body recovery. The weather was clear over the Kahiltna Glacier but there was a bank of clouds behind Kahiltna Pass. The pilot felt they could not get through and the attempt was abandoned for that day. Later in the evening, SCA Aid Scott Gill and Gerhard flew from Talkeetna to McKinley Park.

On May 24, Gill and Gerhard flew over the accident site in the NPS contract helicopter. They concluded that a recovery could be accomplished with reasonable safety by a rescue team.

On May 25, poor weather precluded a recovery attempt, but on May 26, the weather improved. Ralph Tingey and Gerhard flew with the contract helicopter from McKinley Park to Wonder Lake. Gill and Dave Buchanan flew from Talkeetna to Kantishna. The four of them were ferried by the helicopter to the accident site in two trips. They were landed on a moraine near the accident site. They encountered numerous small, hidden crevasses as they traveled over to the site. Upon reaching it, an anchor was set up. Gerhard rappelled into the crevasse while the others set up a Z-pulley system. Gerhard measured the depth of the crevasse from the top to Kerrebrock’s body as approximately 25 feet. He found Kerrebrock’s body lying on its side, with his right arm hanging down and his head slightly lower than his feet. The body was tightly wedged into the crevasse—apparently due to a slight bulge in the crevasse in the area of Kerrebrock’s chest. It took approximately three hours to chip away the ice around Kerrebrock’s body before they were able to remove it from the crevasse. They then took the body over to the helicopter and flew, in relays, back to McKinley Park. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

This was a freak and unusual accident and one that may be second-guessed by many. In my opinion, however, there is virtually nothing else Wickwire could have done to save Kerrebrock’s life. If the two had been traveling farther apart (approximately 50–60 feet) or, better yet, if there had been three climbers roped together instead of two, then probably both (or all three) would not have fallen into the crevasse at the same time and Kerrebrock may or may not have been pinned as tightly as he was.

Most groups on Mount McKinley haul a large amount of their gear on small plastic sleds. This method is convenient; it may be faster and it means that extremely heavy pack loads do not need to be carried on a climber’s back. However, climbers should be aware that in a crevasse fall, a heavy sled may become a dangerous object. If Wickwire and Kerrebrock had each been traveling with a lighter sled rather than one heavy sled between them, they could have traveled farther apart and Wickwire might not have been pulled into the crevasse when Kerrebrock fell.

But given the fact that both fell into the crevasse and that Wickwire injured his shoulder in the fall, I do not think that Wickwire could have done anything differently. Kerrebrock’s body was tightly wedged by a bulge in the wall of the crevasse, and it was only after about three hours of chopping with a small hatchet that we were able to remove enough ice to free the body. With Wickwire’s injured shoulder and without having a small hatchet (even a small ice ax or ice hammer was too big to maneuver in the narrow crevasse), I do not think that Wickwire could have chipped enough ice away to free Kerrebrock from the crevasse. I also do not feel that even a well-constructed Z-pulley system with minimal friction and one healthy person pulling could have extricated Kerrebrock from his wedged position until sufficient ice was chipped away. Given the circumstances of the incident, the injury that Wickwire received, and the equipment that was available to him, I feel that Wickwire attempted everything possible. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.