American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Snow Block Collapse

Alaska, Mount Johnson

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1988

On June 4, 1987, Charles Sassara (?) and Dave McGivern (?) were climbing up the icefall just to the north of Mount Johnson which is located in the Ruth Gorge. The pair was doing an alpine ascent from their base camp.

About 500 meters above the glacier at 0500, McGivern was 15 meters below a large snow block below a serac while Sassara was about 60 meters below the block. Both were climbing tied into a double rope 50 meters apart. Suddenly the snow block collapsed, sending ice and snow over the two climbers.

McGivern was carried about 30 meters and was on top of a meter of avalanche debris. He quickly untied to render assistance to Sassara who was five meters away. Sassara had the rope tied three times around his neck and was blue and not breathing. McGivern removed the rope and had to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in order to revive Sassara. Sassara remained unconscious for four hours with convulsions.

At 0900 Sassara started regaining consciousness and was starting to improve. By 1400 the pair started to slowly descend with Sassara feeling very weak and tenuous. They made it to Ruth Gorge by 1900. McGivern left Sassara in a bivy sack while he went five kilometers up the glacier to get their camp.

After a restful night the pair started up toward their original camp on June 5. Dick Stone from Talkeetna Air Taxi spotted McGivern waving and Sassara lying in the snow at 1130. Stone landed along with Lowell Thomas in another plane. Sassara was then flown out to Talkeetna where he was put on oxygen and then flown to Humana Hospital by Lowell Thomas, Jr.

Sassara was diagnosed as having a concussion, pulmonary edema (from the hypoxic state brought on by strangulation), and a lung infection. He was hospitalized overnight. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

It is always a calculated risk when crossing under hanging pieces of ice and snow. In this case the timing was not on the climbers’ side. McGivern responded quite rapidly which undoubtedly saved Sassara’s life. (Source: Scott Gill, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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