American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall On Ice, Minnesota, Devil Track River Gorge

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


Minnesota, Devil Track River Gorge

On January 18, 1981, Brian McKinley and Peter Monkkonen, both experienced on ice, attempted a third ascent of Nightfall, a 200-foot, two-pitch ice climb in northern Minnesota. Both had done the climb previously. Both wore helmets. An 11-millimeter Perlon rope was used. The weather was unusually mild. Although most of the route was shaded, the ice was generally plastic. Monkkonen led the first pitch and established a belay anchor with two Chouinard tubular ice screws. McKinley followed and then led up the 150-foot second pitch, protecting with six Chouinard tubulars. After several vertical sections, the angle eased somewhat at the top. During McKinley’s final move, one of the climbing tools (Serac Sabre and Mjollnir) dislodged. He fell headfirst 20 feet to his last protection, a Chouinard 9-inch screw, and approximately 20 feet beyond, impacting the ice several times before being arrested by Monkkonen. McKinley suffered multiple lesions about the face, a concussion, a cerebral- nasal blowout, and compound orbital fractures. Recovery was awkward, as he arrested well above his belayer. Retreat was arduous over snow to the road, one mile away. Remarkably, McKinley did not lose consciousness and the party arrived at the road about an hour after the accident. (Source: Richard Loren Doege)


A survey of the site a week later disclosed a square-yard pocket at the lip of the ice where McKinley’s tool probably pulled out a dinner plate. The ice at this point seemed more brittle than elsewhere. Ice conditions often vary within a given pitch and climbing technique should be sensitive to the changes. However, a sense of euphoria or a relaxing of vigilance frequently prevails over caution during the final, often easier, moves of a strenuous climb. The protection that was in place was apparently adequate, as were the belay system, anchor and belayer. McKinley’s helmet (MSR) probably prevented worse injury. Falls on ice are almost always headfirst. Helmets are always advisable. Recovery and retreat would have been expedited by a third member in the party. (Source: Richard Loren Doege)

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