American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Slip on Snow and Rappel Anchor Failure, Alaska, Mount Huntington

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

SLIP ON SNOW and RAPPEL ANCHOR FAILURE

Alaska, Mount Huntington

On April 16, 1983, John Tuckey (32) and Robb Kimbrough (28) flew to the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier to climb the East Face of Mount Huntington. On April 26, an advance base camp was established at 2190 meters on the Tokositna Glacier, below the East Buttress, with six days of food, leaving one day of food at base camp. By May 1 they had summitted and began their descent of the Southeast Spur. The next day they arrived at the hanging glacier (2460 meters) below the South Ridge. They had depleted their supply of food and fuel, but were feeling strong as they continued descending on May 3. As Kimbrough mentioned, “We mentally felt the climb was over.” The descent route took them down a steep ice chute, avoiding an icefall between the 2100- and 2400-meter levels. Near the lower part, they encountered a 36-meter ice headwall. At 1800, Tuckey traversed over to some rocks to set up a rappel. In the process his footing broke out on the 50-degree loose snow, causing him to lose his stance and slide over the headwall. Kimbrough was unable to hold the fall and was pulled over the headwall after Tuckey. Below the wall they tumbled another 200 vertical meters down the 40- to 45-degree slope. Kimbrough sustained a concussion and a severely broken lower leg. They also lost three of their four ice axes.

Tuckey immediately splinted Kimbrough’s leg and then dug out a sleeping platform. Due to their proximity to avalanche activity, they moved down the slope to a safer campsite the next day. Because their date for pickup was May 18, it was imperative that Tuckey go for help. On May 5, Tuckey made an attempt to ascend the 260-meter col between Mount Huntington and The Rooster’s Comb. This would enable him to descend onto the West Fork of the Ruth. He attained the ridge crest and began descending to a point lower in the col. At 1400, he encountered a short snow cliff blocking his route. He placed a large snow fluke in the unconsolidated snow for a rappel anchor. Due to the nature of the snow, he was careful not to weight the rope heavily, using the ax as a backup. After the first several steps, the anchor pulled, causing Tuckey to fall. He tumbled down 300 meters of steep rock and ice, falling toward the Tokositna side of the col.

At the time of the fall, the weather was hot and sunny, and Tuckey was lightly clothed. He was knocked unconscious and didn’t come to until 1800. Upon mental recovery, he noticed that he had fully dressed himself in warmer clothing, though he couldn’t remember doing this. He had lost their only ice ax in the fall but was fortunate to have landed close to their previous tracks. He wandered wearily back to camp that evening, having sustained a concussion and minor lacerations. Sleeping for 12 hours that night, Tuckey made another attempt for the col in the morning. He proceeded back up the glacier, using a shovel in place of the lost ice ax. He experienced extreme exhaustion, traveling only a short distance before taking a break and sleeping intermittently for five hours. While Tuckey was away, Kimbrough crawled up the slope searching in vain for the missing axes. Due to the lack of an ax and the fall, they decided that the last resort would be to signal climbers from the col. Upon Tuckey’s return, it became apparent that he had sustained a concussion. He slept another 20 hours and felt better the next day, May 7.

They decided to move camp back to the original site, up the glacier at 2200 meters, which would make the approach closer to the col. Tuckey left first, proceeding to the ridge, while Kimbrough dragged himself the half mile to the camp. On the ridge, Tuckey observed a plane taking off on the West Fork and attempted to signal it with a flare. The pilot was unaware of the signal. Later in the day, about 1800, two climbers, Dave Saiget and Jim Moehl, were returning from a carry when they thought they heard someone shouting, but disregarded it due to the windy conditions. Tuckey attempted to signal the pair by shouting, blowing a whistle and waving a dark inner sleeping bag. He returned to camp in the evening but was back on the ridge the next morning. On this day, at 1300, Moehl and Saiget were making another carry up the West Fork when they observed Tuckey waving and shouting, “We need help.” Tuckey fired a smoke bomb which they both observed. Moehl and Saiget went to the Mountain House Airstrip and contacted Steve Hackett, a member of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. Doug Geeting with Talkeetna

Air Taxi arrived on a routine flight at 1450 and was informed of the situation. Geeting and Saiget flew over the col and observed the words “no food/fuel” and “broken leg” stamped out in the snow next to a tent on the Tokositna Glacier. At 1515, Geeting contacted Ranger Roger Robinson at the Talkeetna Ranger Station, who in turn contacted Park Headquarters. Jim Porter of Evergreen Helicopters was contacted for the pickup in an Alouette III. Geeting flew back to the Mountain House and gathered food and fuel for an airdrop, which he made at 1640. At 1643 the helicopter with Porter and Ranger Robinson departed Talkeetna. At 1725 the two climbers were picked up and flown to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

Tuckey and Kimbrough felt the climb was over on the day of the fall, which probably contributed to the accident.

The two had left word with their pilot and the Park Service about their route and the date to be picked up. This was actually several weeks from the time of the accident. The fact that they left no specific dates could have led to a different conclusion had they been more seriously hurt. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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