FALL INTO CREVASSE, INADEQUATE COMMUNICATION, INEXPERIENCE
Alaska, Mount McKinley
On June 19 and 20, 1983, the 16 members of the Sierra Denali Expedition flew into the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. The expedition planned on climbingthe West Buttress on Mount McKinley. The 16 members left Kahiltna base camp about 1930 on May 20 with four rope teams of four. They were going to cache their gear and then return to camp early the next morning. Around 2200 meters on the Kahiltna Glacier, at 2230, Dale Van Dalsem was leading his four-person rope team consisting of himself, his wife Jacqueline Van Dalsem (49), Sue Wyman, and Jeff Koepke.
Dale Van Dalsem stepped over a small crevasse and thought about warning the others in his rope team but felt it was obvious enough. As he continued up the glacier, he felt a strong tug and went into a self-arrest position. Wyman was roped behind Jacqueline Van Dalsem and watched her fall into the crevasse that her husband had previously stepped over. Wyman went into a self-arrest and saw Jacqueline Van Dalsem go out of sight, followed by her sled. She fell about four meters. She was wearing a seat harness, a one-inch tubular webbing chest harness and a forty-pound pack and was pulling a seventy-pound sled. The sled was fastened around her waist and clipped through a carabiner on the side of her seat harness. Neither the pack nor the sled was tied into the rope at the time of the fall. About two minutes after the fall, Don Weiss (from one of the three rope teams on the scene) was belayed to the crevasse and yelled in. He heard Jacqueline Van Dalsem say, “Help me,” faintly. Weiss turned after making verbal contact but did not actually see her.
About five minutes later, Jerry Blackwell went over to Dale Van Dalsem to get a rescue rope. He stepped over the crevasse and yelled down, but did not receive a response. The expedition immediately started setting up a Z pully system and began hauling Van Dalsem up. After hauling a couple of minutes, it became apparent that she was hung up on the crevasse lip. Larry Genreau was then belayed to the edge of the crevasse (about twenty minutes after the initial fall). He saw Van Dalsem arched backward and upside down “like over a barrel.” She had some facial blood and was unconscious. As Genreau reached down, the edge of the crevasse broke causing him to fall about two meters. He removed her pack and cut the sled free. He then tied another rope to her seat harness before climbing out. The group tried shoveling the edge of the crevasse and then started hauling on the Z pully system, which caused considerable tension on the rope tied to Van Dalsem. A large number of people were hauling on the rope when suddenly it went slack as Van Dalsem’s seat harness or tie-in pulled off and she fell about ten meters. As she fell, two members from the Light Is Right expedition arrived on the scene. One of them was lowered down and guided Van Dalsem up and over the crevasse lip while other members pulled her up using the Z pully system.
By 0030 on June 21, she was out of the crevasse, and members of the Sierra Denali Expedition started CPR. The two-member Karriki expedition from Spain arrived just after 0300 and were asked to go to Kahiltna Base Camp to get help. They did not speak English very well.
At 0245 Mountaineering Ranger Scott Gill was informed that there was a lady who had fallen into a crevasse and was being given CPR around the 2300-meter level on the Kahiltna Glacier. Jim Porter of Evergreen Helicopters was contacted and dispatched to Talkeetna. Mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson and SCA volunteer John Wason flew to the accident site in a fixed wing aircraft from Talkeetna Air Taxi to survey the situation on the mountain.
Around 0500 it was reported from base camp that Jacqueline Van Dalsem was dead and that her body was being sledded to base camp in order to be flown out.
At 0730 Tony Martin from Talkeetna Air Taxi flew the body from base camp to Talkeetna. Jim Porter flew the body from Talkeetna to Providence Hospital in Anchorage where she was pronounced dead. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
No member of the Sierra Denali Expedition had their packs or sleds tied into the rope. If Van Dalsem’s pack and sled had been tied off, they could have been discarded and might have absorbed some of the initial impact of her fall. In cases like this, someone should go into the crevasse to evaluate the situation. Using a Z pully system before evaluating the scene can result in the kinds of problems seen here—most especially trying to haul a victim with all the extra weight involved, imposing a direct strain on her system. A person in a crevasse with a victim could cut a pack and sled loose and monitor vital signs and responses.
The lower sections of the Kahiltna Glacier are particularly hazardous in late June due to crevasse fields opening, soft snow bridges, and wet, slushy conditions. The expedition was traveling during a time of day when the snow is very soft and bridges quite weak. Travel later in the day or in the early morning hours is safer due to the snow setting up and becoming stronger. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)