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Loss of Control—Voluntary Glissade, Climbing Unropred, Inexperience, Fatigue, Alaska, Pioneer Peak


Alaska, Pioneer Peak

On Monday, March 16, 1987, at 0330,I was contacted by Bruce McCormick of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and requested to respond to a staging area along the Knik River at the Palmer Alternate bridge. He advised me there had been a climbing accident on Pioneer Peak in Chugach State Park. I arrived at the staging area at 0700 and contacted the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Ben Benson and Todd Miner. I conducted interviews with Ben Benson and Todd Miner, the group leader.

Benson said both he and Brian Zelenka (28) were climbing with the Anchorage Community College Wilderness Studies program. The group was climbing Pioneer Peak as part of the Expedition and Planning Techniques class. Benson said the group moved up an avalanche chute as their ascent route. They had climbed two waterfalls by 1630. Miner and the group, except for Benson and Zelenka, gathered to discuss the activities for the remainder of the day. The group made a decision to descend. Benson and Zelenka were within shouting distance of Miner, being above the rest of the group on the slope, and were continuing their ascent to the summit. Benson said Miner agreed to their request but advised they should return within one hour whether they made the summit or not. They were advised the rest of the group was descending.

As Benson and Zelenka climbed to the highest waterfall, they predicted possible problems at this area on their descent and set a fixed line for their descent. Benson said they realized it would be near darkness when they reached this location. Benson and Zelenka summitted Pioneer Peak and began their descent. Both were descending unroped with Benson 15 to 20 meters below Zelenka. They had reached the general area both had identified as the difficult section. Benson had stopped at their packs just above the upper icefall. Zelenka continued his descent as Benson watched. Benson said Zelenka had gotten slightly off route onto the hard snow and ice, and as he attempted to glissade unroped, he quickly went out of control. Zelenka fell past Benson as both men yelled at each other. Benson watched as Zelenka slid over their fixed line, unable to stop his fall, until he dropped out of sight. Benson said he gathered himself and then descended, looking for Zelenka along his fall line. Benson only found Zelenka’s helmet at about the 150-meter level. Benson said the light was poor and he was physically tired. He shortly got assistance from the Alaska State Troopers.

Brian Zelenka’s body was recovered on the morning of March 16 by members of the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group approximately 750 meters below the site of the accident. The recovery effort was expedited by the use of the Alaska State Troopers’ helicopter. (Source: Pete Panarese, Superintendent, Chugach State Park)


These climbers’ experience levels were not sufficient for them to recognize the need to be roped up and to anchor the rope to protect their descent. The terrain is too steep to glissade. Strength got them up, and lack of experience and fatigue led to the fatality. (Source: Pete Panarese, Superintendent, Chugach State Park)