American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow — Skiing, Bindings Failed to Release, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 17, 1986, Heim Gunther (30) and the other ten members of the “Schwaebische” expedition were returning to 4350 meters from a successful summit climb of the West Buttress. The party had left their skis at 4600 meters, continued to the summit and returned to 4600 meters where they began a ski descent with packs to 4350 meters. During the descent, Gunther fell three times. During the first two falls, his ski bindings released. On the third fall, they did not. He sustained a twisting injury to his left knee. Ranger Scott Gill and Dr. Peter Hackett examined Gunther and decided to allow him to rest overnight and see if the injury improved by the next day, which it did not. Dr. Peter Hackett, at medical camp, contacted the Talkeetna Ranger Station to report that Gunther was unable to ski or walk out.

Gunther was in considerable pain and was concerned about safely navigating Windy Corner while he was strapped to a sled. (The previous day, Ranger Gill had indicated Gunther should be ambulatory to assist in the traverse around Windy Corner.) After evaluating his mental and physical state, and having no way of evaluating the expertise of the other members of the German party, Seibert authorized a fly-out from 4350 meters. Poor weather prevented that evacuation until May 19 at 1100. Lowell Thomas landed his Heleo-Courier airplane at 4350 meters and Gunther and his wife were flown back to Talkeetna. All costs for the flight were paid for by the victim. (Source: Bob Seibert, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


This section of the route is often very hard packed or wind slab snow. Most people ascend and descend using a fixed rope. While skiable for an expert, the probable consequences of a fall, especially if one’s bindings do not release, brings into question whether skiing on this slope should be chanced. (Source: J. Williamson)

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