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Weather, Fall on Snow, Inadequate Protection, Rapid Ascent, Alaska, Mount McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

The British Denali Expedition of Chris Massey (39), John Lang (45), and Julian Dixon (37) flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier on May 1, 1989, to begin their ascent of the West Rib of Mount McKinley. On the 17th, they made their attempt of the summit from a camp at 5000 meters. A poor weather system of wind and snow enveloped the mountain later in the day making travel very difficult and hazardous. Late on the 17th or early 18th, the three were attempting to descend when all three fell from 5500 meters, tumbling down the “Orient Express” ice couloir to 4800 meters. They were killed in the fall. The NPS spotted the victims the morning of the 18th. The three were recovered later that day and flown out by helicopter to Talkeetna on the 29th. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)


On May 20, Tom Bright observed three sets of slide tracks near 5500 meters. It appeared the British started their fall from near this height. This is close to where they were last seen by Stasik and Miller and since Stasik and Miller traversed the accident site three hours later, it could be assumed the trio were descending when the accident occurred. It is unknown how high they ascended, what is known is that the storm intensified to where it was nearly impossible to travel in the wind and white-out conditions. Numerous falls have occurred in the “Orient Express” over the years and all have occurred on the descent. Each of these falls, including this one, could have been arrested if the descending party had put in running belays across the steeper sections of ice. A party planning on making a descent of the West Rib needs stamina and caution to safely downclimb the upper ice sections after a long summit day.

The British underestimated Denali by trying for the top from 5000 meters with their limited acclimatization. Spending several extra days at a high camp would have made a quicker and safer ascent to the summit. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)