American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cornice Collapse, Fall on Snow, Lost Equipment, Frostbite, Hypothermia, Climbing Alone — Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1983


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 19, 1982, Tom Redfern (31) and Barney Dennen (19) of the Redfern Expedition to the West Buttress of McKinley were flown into 2200 meters on the Kahiltna Glacier. They reached the 4400-meter camp on May 20.

At 1245 on May 26, Dennen began a solo climb on the 50-degree ice, 400 meters west of the fixed lines. At 2000, Dennen reached the West Buttress ridge crest. In whiteout conditions, he moved east along the ridge toward the fixed line at 5000 meters. He immediately broke the cornice, fell 10 meters through the air and then tumbled 100 meters down the north side of the ridge. He lost his ice ax and pack. His pack contained mittens, Gore-Tex pants and a down parka. He used his Pterodactyl ice hammer to dig a cave while wearing only ragged silk gloves. Dennen had considered climbing back up but was too tired and the light was fading. While digging the snow cave, Dennen froze the fingers on both of his hands.

Redfern became concerned and notified the High Latitude Research Program (HLRP) team at 2100 when Dennen hadn’t returned. At 2200, Redfern wanded 8- meter intervals from 4400 meters to the base of the fixed line at 4700 meters.

A storm started that evening, with 110–130 kph winds and -12°C temperatures. Dennen stayed awake all night, alternately thawing his frozen fingers in his crotch and his mouth. Spindrift avalanches swept over his cave entrance.

At 0500 on May 27, when the storm had abated, Dennen ascended to the ridge crest. On the top, he was forced to his hands and knees by a strong wind. As he was unable to use his frostbitten hands on the fixed line, he descended by wrapping his arms around it. Redfern saw Dennen on the fixed line at 0600 and started up immediately with Brian Okonek and Dr. Frank Hollingshead from HLRP.

At 0700, they met Dennen below the fixed line. He was hypothermic and his hands were frozen in a clenched position. They assisted him down to 4400 meters and treated him for hypothermia by placing warm packs on his body. His rectal temperature was 35°C and his oral temperature was 29°C. Dr. Peter Hackett, who was with HLRP, began thawing Dennen’s hands and administered morphine for the pain.

At 1100, Ranger Bob Gerhard was notified of the situation by a ham radio operator, Rosemary Kendall. On May 27, at 1200, Ranger Bob Gerhard notified the Rescue Coordination Center. However, due to high winds, the Chinook helicopters were grounded until May 28 at 1300.

At 1015 on May 28, Gerhard was notified that a C-130 would fly at 1115. At 1400 the C-130 reported that it was calm at 4300 meters. At 1500 the Chinook landed in Talkeetna, it left Talkeetna at 1615 and airlifted Dennen from 4400 meters at 1700. Three injured Germans and Redfern accompanied Dennen to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, where Doctors Hackett, Newman and Hollings- head decided that the uninjured Redfern should stay with Dennen and provide crucial psychological support for his young partner. Dennen was a climbing instructor and the doctors were certain that he would lose some of his fingers. (Source: Jon Waterman, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


It is to Dennen’s credit that he survived this ordeal. This accident demonstrates once again the problem of having no support when climbing alone.

The cluster of accidents, of which this is one, that occurred during a brief period illustrates the magnitude of search and rescue logistics which park officials must cope with. (Source: J. Williamson)

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