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Slip on Snow, Ice Axes in Packs, Fatigue, Alaska, Mount McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

The four members of the Utah Exploration Society flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on May 4, 1983, to climb the Wickersham Wall on Mount McKinley. The expedition climbed rapidly and reached their high camp at 5000 meters on the Northwest Buttress on May 17. On May 19 at 0700, after a rest day, the four members, Rick Wyatt, Chris Noble, Kelly McKean and Evelyn Lees (25) headed for the north summit. At 1130, the group stopped at the 5580-meter level, where there were 30-knot winds and -25°C temperature. Lees and Wyatt decided to turn back while Noble and McKean kept going on toward the summit. As Lees and Wyatt started back to camp, they put their ice axes on their packs due to the very flat terrain in the 5400-meter basin. The terrain from here down to the 5000- meter camp was steeper (30–35 degrees), and the snow much harder. They did not take their ice axes off their packs before traveling on the slope and were not roped. On the descent Lees slipped and was unable to self-arrest since she did not have an ice ax. She fell 200 meters before stopping on the flat runout close to camp. In the fall, Lees broke her right ulna and possibly cracked her right pelvis. Wyatt was able to help Lees back to camp, arriving about 1800. Later that day Noble and McKean returned from the summit.

The group rested a day, and then, on May 21, moved toward the West Buttress route. Lees traveled without a pack and had to be lowered down the steep sections on her left side. They climbed to the 4800-meter camp on the West Buttress that night.

On May 22 Lees was lowered to the High Latitude Medical Research group at 4300 meters where Dr. Peter Hackett examined her. Hackett felt she had a possible stable fracture of the hip. The Utah Exploration Society team were willing to continue to base camp with Lees until Hackett recommended flying out on a fixed- wing aircraft from the 4300-meter camp. A plane was coming in already to pick up another climber who was suffering from frostbite. Both were flown to Talkeetna around 2330 on May 22, and from there to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


Lees’ fall could probably have been stopped if she had had an ice ax in her hand. Possibly the altitude and fatigue made it an inconvenience to take the ice axes from their packs. Numerous falls due to altitude and exhaustion have occurred while climbers descend from high altitudes on Mount McKinley. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)