American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fatigue, Exposure, Weather, Carbon Monoxide, Alaska, Mount Marcus Baker

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989

FATIGUE, EXPOSURE, WEATHER, CARBON MONOXIDE

Alaska, Mount Marcus Baker

On December 28, 1987, Sylvia Lane (28), Frank Jenkins (38) (see ANAM, 1988, p. 19), and John Cafmeyer (32) left Chugiak for a winter ascent of Mount Marcus Baker, a massive 4500 meter peak in the Talkeetna Range. Sylvia had orginally planned the trip with other people. She had wanted to fly into the Knik Glacier and approach the peak from the other side. When the people she was going with backed out, Sylvia recruited John (friend) and Frank and changed her approach to save money. They were all experienced, having done many winter and summer ascents throughout Alaska.

They drove up the Glenn Highway to the Matanuska Glacier Lodge. From there they skied up the Glacier for four days to the base of the peak. After establishing a base camp, they were to summit then return via the same route to Chugiak.

They left Matanuska Lodge heavily loaded with gear and provisions for three weeks. They carried heavy packs and pulled sleds. Sylvia left a diary which mentioned the five day journey to basecamp was very tiring. (This glacier is very broken up at its terminus and heavily crevassed in areas.) Frank, since he seemed to have a sixth sense in finding routes through crevasses, led most of the way. The trip was not without incidents. At one point they thought they’d reached their base camp area only to wake the next morning to find they had taken a wrong turn on the glacier. Temperatures were cold (-20 to -30 degrees C and a steady wind). They reached their basecamp area on January 2 and settled in. The next morning weather was good, so they were going to attempt to summit. Sylvia, after some indecision, decided to remain in camp, saying she was too tired to try that day. John and Frank decided to go ahead. They left Sylvia with most of the supplies and headed up. After climbing all day, they made a snow cave, then began again the next morning. They reached the summit at noon and began their trip down. John’s wife flew over and spotted them. She, however, could not get close because of wind currents and poor visibility to see basecamp. Later that day a storm blew up. Frank and John holed up for the remainder of the day and all of the next, until the morning of January 6 when they could continue down. Upon reaching Basecamp that afternoon, they found the tent blown down and covered with 40 to 50 centimeters of blown snow filling the shelter walls built around it. Sylvia was about 50 meters slightly downhill from the tent, frozen to death. (Source: Tom Lane, brother of victim)

Analysis

Sylvia was known in the Anchorage climbing area by many people as a strong, very careful, and thorough climber. The news of her death in such circumstances was of great surprise. No one knows what happened during the time Frank and John were gone. Several items I think, though, are important:

Her diary entries stop the day they reached basecamp for some reason. From what she did write, it seemed the mountain and area surrounding was intimidating to heru

Sylvia had been weathered in for several days on a previous climb, but never by herself.

The autopsy revealed a higher than normal level of carbon monoxide in her blood. Enough, a doctor friend/climber said, to perhaps cause mental impairment at altitude.

Sylvia was found dressed in clothing appropriate to be out brushing snow off the tent, but not to be outside for an extended amount of time.

Sylvia was very nearsighted (20/400). She was found without her glasses or contacts on. They were stowed in the tent.

Sylvia was not well acquainted with her climbing partners. She was close friends with John’s wife, but didn’t know John or Frank very well.

I think the storm that blew up was being experienced at Sylvia’s elevation for a much longer time (high winds and blowing snow, anyway). Sylvia may have been struggling to keep blowing snow from drifting and collapsing the tent for some time. Exhausted and perhaps mentally impaired by the carbon monoxide level in her system, she may have fallen asleep and awakened suffocating under the blown-down tent. Panicking, perhaps without her glasses, at night, and not dressed to be out very long in that weather, she could have succumbed quickly to hypothermia. There will always be that question, though: Sylvia had the necessary equipment and experience, but why didn’t she use it? (Source: Tom Lane, brother of victim)

(Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Tom Lane for submitting this report. It raises more than just his final question.)

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