FALL ON SNOW/ICE, CLIMBING UNROPED, ALTITUDE SICKNESS, FATIGUE, DARKNESS
Alaska, Mount McKinley
On May 5, 1984, Bruce Matsutsuyo (30) and Steve Earle (31) flew onto the Ruth Glacier (by the Sheldon Mountain House) where they met the third member of their expedition, Terry Schmidt (31). The expedition objective was to ski up the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier over the South Buttress and down to the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.
At 2100 on May 11, the expedition was 60 to 70 meters below the crest of the South Buttress at 3550 meters. It was the end of a long day, and everyone was tired and anxious to top out on the buttress. Matsutsuyo was leading the last section of
snow/ice (40-50 degrees) without his pack, while Earle was belaying him from the middle of the rope. Schmidt was half a rope length below Earle and waiting for Matsutsuyo to finish his lead. AT 2130 Matsutsuyo had climbed above the steep section and promptly ran out of rope on low angle snow/ice (15-20 degrees). Matsutsuyo felt he needed to continue another six meters to determine the final difficulties and felt comfortable about unroping. He clipped the rope to a picket he had placed and continued up the needed distance. Matsutsuyo observed easy terrain above and started to descend back to the rope. He realized he was very tired, and about three meters from the picket, he slipped and started falling down the steep slope. Matsutsuyo cartwheeled down 100 meters before coming to a stop on a patch of snow just beyond sight of Schmidt and Earle.
After Matsutsuyo fell, Schmidt started pulling anchors so he could rejoin Earle, but by mistake dropped his pack with gear, which then fell 200 meters. He then climbed up to Earle.
While Matsutsuyo was falling, Renato Cassaroto (Italian soloist) was trying to descend the Ruth Glacier side of the South Buttress after completing a 14 day solo climb on the previously unclimbed ridge off the South Buttress. Cassarato witnessed the fall and tried to make contact with Schmidt and Earle from the top of the Buttress. Cassaroto did not speak English, but understood by yelling back and forth that Schmidt and Earle wanted a helicopter. Cassaroto then started descending the Kahiltna side of the South Buttress to get help at basecamp.
After they talked to Cassaroto, Earle climbed up to unclip the rope from the picket, and on his descent fell about 12 meters before Schmidt caught the fall. The pair regrouped and were now able to hear Matsutsuyo say he was, “Okay,” but they were still unable to see him. By this time it was getting dark, and they were very nervous about descending to Matsutsuyo’s location. Due to lack of gear and the hazard of traveling tired and in the dark, they decided to bivouac for the night and wait until full daylight before moving.
In the meantime, Matsutsuyo had regained his senses and was suffering intense pain in his right arm and leg. He felt very cold. After waiting a time, it seemed apparent his partners were not going to come down to help, so Matsutsuyo dug himself a snow hole with his ice hammer and crawled in for the night.
At 1050 on May 12, Cassarato arrived at Kahiltna basecamp and informed the caretaker of the situation on the South Buttress. The National Park Service in Talkeetna was contacted and a Cessna 185 overflight was contracted with Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi. At 1214, Mountaineering Ranger Scott Gill and Geeting were flying high above the South Buttress. They both noticed one person sitting in the snow (Matsutsuyo) and a pack about 100 meters below (Schmidt’s pack). The other two members had not moved from their bivouac. They were up against rocks above Matsutsuyo and were not observed. The person in the snow needed assistance, so a helicopter was contracted to come to Talkeetna.
At 1430 Ron Smith from ERA Helicopters left Talkeetna in his Bell 212 with mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson and a large assortment of climbing gear. The helicopter stopped at basecamp to pick up Gill, who was trying to communicate with Cassaroto about the accident. As the helicopter approached the South Buttress, Schmidt and Earle were just arriving to where Matsutsuyo was sitting. Smith felt that he could land close enough to the accident site, but was uncomfortable with the light downdrafts. A radio was dropped to the group of three, but they were unsuccessful in retrieving it right away. The helicopter, low on fuel, headed back to
Talkeetna, arriving about 1600.
In Talkeetna, Smith thought he could make the landing if he was carrying a lighter load. At 1700 Smith and Gill left Talkeetna in the helicopter. Robinson flew observation with Lowell Thomas of Talkeetna Air Taxi in a Cessna 185. At 1745 Smith landed the helicopter on top of a serac about 10 meters from the three climbers, and Matsutsuyo was helped to the aircraft. Matsutsuyo was suffering from a contusion around the heart area, deep laceration on right the leg, various facial contusions and minor frostbite on his big toes. He was flown to Talkeetna and then to Providence Hospital in Anchorage.
Schmidt and Earle were going to continue over the South Buttress and descend to Kahiltna basecamp. On the descent they left their packs with all gear at the original accident site and followed Cassaroto’s tracks to basecamp without any equipment. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
The end of a long, arudous day is when mistakes are most likely to occur, particularly on the descent. Matsutsuyo mentioned he was suffering from the altitude, which may have led to his decision to untie his belay rope. After the fall, another couple of mishaps occurred. Schmidt dropped his pack and Earle took the 12 meter fall. These factors, along with darkness, caused Schmidt and Earle to feel the descent would be too hazardous and to wait until daylight. This decision must have been difficult, knowing Matsutsuyo would have to spend the night without any bivouac gear, and
not knowing the extent of his injuries.
Matsutsuyo used excellent survival skills in digging a snow hole and crawling in. That undoubtedly prevented further damage from cold injury, and may have saved his life.
It was not until 1500 on May 12 that Schmidt and Earle finally reached Matsutsuyo. They did not bring a stove, food or water to the accident site. Considering that Matsutsuyo had just spent the last 17 hours without food, water, or bivouac gear, it is questionable as to how much assistance they could have provided Matsutsuyo had the helocopter not been able to complete the evacuation, or had he been more seriously injured.
Earle and Schmidt’s decision to return to basecamp without any equipment was another possible problem, given the potential for rapidly changing mountain weather. Additionally, both Matsutsuyo and Earle felt that they were in terrain that exceeded their technical abilities. They were off the normal South Buttress route and had ascended along the rocks east of the normal route. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)