AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION, ATTEMPTING TO ASCEND TOO FAST
Alaska, Mount McKinley
A Ranier Mountaineering, Inc., group began a guided ascent of the West Buttress on July 1, 1987. On July 7, the group moved from the 3330-meter level to 3850 meters— below Windy Corner—in a whiteout. Their plan was to go around the corner to the 4250-meter camp, but one member was having altitude problems.
At 0530 on July 8, a slab avalanche released just below the bergschrund to the east of camp on the West Buttress proper. It was 20 meters wide and ran 100 meters, covering four of the five RMI tents with a meter of debris. The two guides were able to get out in one minute and dug out one other tent. The third tent’s occupants dug themselves out. The occupants of the tent that had not been hit by the avalanche were not immediately aware that everyone else was buried, but once they investigated, they quickly began probing and digging. One of the occupants of the remaining tent took a knife and cut a hole in the top of the tent, then thrust a hand up out of the snow which helped in his location.
The weather at this time was clear. It had been snowing the night before, but the gullies above where the slide occurred were blue ice and nothing was accumulating due to the steep angle. The snow was sliding down the gullies and accumulating below the bergschrund, the site of the eventual release.
The four tents struck by the avalanche were destroyed. The last person dug out was hypothermic and in shock from being buried for so long. Another had frostbite with small blebs on one finger from digging out people and gear. Several people in the group reported coughing up blood from the exertion of digging and bruised lungs from the debris. Two ice axes and one harness were lost; all other gear was found after extensive probing.
The guides located the stoves, rehydrated their clients, packed up, and left by noon. They moved down to base camp after picking up caches, arriving there at 0400 on July 9. (Source: Ralph Moore, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
The climb from 3330 to 4250 meters is too much for most groups to do in a day. Avalanches have hit parties camped in or near the basin in the past. A safer alternative is to camp in the bergschrund area below Windy Corner (which was completely filled in this year) or further west in the basin near where the icefall begins to drop down to the 3330-meter level. A big slide could completely sweep across this basin, so camping in the bergschrund or carving out a platform along the slope below Windy Comer is the best bet. (Source: Ralph Moore, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)