AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Weather, Fall on Snow, Exposure, Alaska, Mount McKinley

WEATHER, FALL ON SNOW, EXPOSURE

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On February 16, 1989, a four-man Japanese expedition flew into the Kahiltna Basecamp to begin a winter ascent of the West Buttress. The group leader, Noboru Yamada (39), was climbing Mount McKinley as part of a quest to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. After two days, one of the men became ill and returned to base camp. The remaining three continued their climb and on February 20 reached the 5200-meter high camp. On this same day, an Austrian team of three (Austrian Mountain Guide Expedition) made a successful climb to the summit and returned to high camp. On the 21st, stormy weather kept both parties in camp. Weather improved somewhat on the 22nd and the Austrians left high camp and descended to 2975 meters. Weather deteriorated and extreme winds enveloped the upper portions of the mountain. These extreme winds, estimated at up to 320 Kph , continued through February 26, then moderated slightly and continued between 95 and 160 Kph through March 9. On March 10, search flights found three objects below Denali Pass that were thought to be the bodies of the missing climbers, but severe turbulence prevented a positive identification. Search efforts were terminated at the end of the day on March 4. On March 13, another overflight positively identified the objects as the bodies of the missing climbers. It is believed that the Japanese team tried for the summit, and were caught in severe weather which contributed to a fall from Denali Pass. (Source: Bob Seibert, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

The Japanese team probably left the 5200 meter high camp during a brief lull in the winds. U.S. Weather Service records show that February 22, the day the Austrians left the high camp and the last day the Japanese team was seen alive, was also the last day of moderate winds. From that point on, winds increased in severity, soon developing into an extremely violent wind storm. U.S. Weather Service estimated winds in the passes to have reached 320 Kph. It is likely the Japanese team was caught at or above Denali Pass by these extreme winds. This was a very experienced team of mountaineers. The Austrian team said they had never seen the Japanese travel using ropes. Yet the team was roped when they fell. The team probably roped up because the visibility was so poor it was the only way to keep track of one another. They were in the general area of Denali Pass when a fall, probably caused by the extreme weather conditions, occurred.

A recovery team found the bodies on March 30 at the 5275 meter level below Denali Pass. They appeared to have fallen, because the rope was wrapped around the arm of one of the men. They were heavily clothed.

This accident has similarities to the first successful winter ascent of the West Buttress by Dave Johnston, Ray Genet and Art Davidson in 1967. They too were caught by a severe wind storm above Denali Pass. They felt they physically could not move through the pass because of the extreme winds. They carried survival gear and were able to bivouac at the pass for nearly a week until the winds subsided. The Austrians carried only a thermos of hot chocolate. The Japanese traveled without survival gear, so they had no option but to attempt to descend to their supplies at high camp, where they dug a snow cave under their damaged tent site. Nothing was disturbed in the cave, including three unrolled sleeping bags. (Source: Bob Seibert, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park.