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Slip on Snow, Descending Unroped, Fatigue, Alaska, Mount McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 9, 1983, Niklaus Lotscher (36) and Bill Baker flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to climb the West Buttress of Mount McKinley. At 1630 on May 22, John Wason, a Student Conservation Association volunteer in Talkeetna, received a radio message from the High Latitude Medical Research Group camp, informing him of an accident.

Lotscher and Baker had left from a high camp at 5200 meters at 0900 on May 22 and made the summit at 1500. They had traveled unroped all day and stopped to rest at Denali Pass on the descent. They had discussed the importance of being careful on the descent, and neither of them seemed to be affected by altitude sickness.

Baker was standing approximately three to four meters below Lotscher as they continued their descent. The snow was windpacked and icy. Lotscher lost his footing, fell and knocked Baker off his feet, sending them both sliding down the mountain. The fall occurred at 1600. Baker attempted several self-arrests until he eventually succeeded and stopped. Lotscher slid out of control for approximately 450 meters, stopping at the basin between the 5200-meter camp on the West Buttress and the North Peak. Baker descended to Lotscher and found him conscious but injured. He had sustained facial lacerations, left wrist fractures, and a possible cervical or upper thoracic spine injury. Eight hours later he complained of pain in his neck.

Baker found Lotscher’s ice ax stuck into his pack and speculated that it might have caused the lacerations on his face, as it was attached to him with a piece of nylon webbing. Baker dug a platform, splinted Lotscher’s left hand and comforted him. On May 24, a helicopter evacuation was successfully completed. (Source: John Wason, Student Conservation Association)


Many climbers this year—and in past years—have taken similar falls in this same general area. Letting down one’s guard on the descent, especially at this altitude, increases the potential for accidents. Being roped—and even belaying—on terrain normally seen as third-class climbing is suggested. The ability to perform basic ice ax technique is essential. (Source: J. Williamson)