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Fall on Snow, Placed no Protection, Exposure, Alaska, Mount Mckinley

FALL ON SNOW, PLACED NO PROTECTION, EXPOSURE

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 16, 1990, the three member “Washington Square” party of Mary Koshuta, Michael Koshuta (33) and Stuart Jones (29) flew into the 2200 meter basecamp on

Mount McKinley. Their objective was first to acclimatize on the West Buttress, then Mr. Koshuta and Jones would ascend the Cassin Ridge. While they were at the Kahilt- na basecamp, they had the opportunity to talk with Michael Covington, mountain guide and head of the Guide Service Fantasy Ridge. Covington had just returned from guiding on the Cassin and gave the pair additional information about the route. Covington had guided Mr. Koshuta on several trips in the past, including Mount Huntington, where Jones was also a client. Covington’s group of six was unable to traverse over the summit because of severe weather, so they made a traverse at the 5000 meter level, descending off the Cassin and traversing over 40 pitches to the West Rib. He felt the traverse would not be a safe escape off the Cassin if one were in trouble. It should only be undertaken in good weather. Covington went over this information with Koshuta and Jones.

By May 21, the three had reached 3350 meters, where they spent several days acclimatizing. By the 24th they had returned to Kahiltna basecamp. Mary Koshuta returned to Talkeetna, and Mr. Koshuta and Jones began their approach to the Cassin. On the 25th, Koshuta and Jones went up the Northeast Fork with approximately twelve days of food. On the 30th, the “Idaho Centennial,” a team of three, met up with Koshuta and Jones on the Cassin Ledge at 1030. Koshuta and Jones were packing up their camp. The two teams had about a two hour overlap. After Koshuta and Jones had departed, another group of two, Kevin Steele and Rob Raker of the “Black Diamond” team, arrived on the Cassin Ledge. On the 31st, the Black Diamond and Idaho Centennial teams moved up to 4300 meters. On June 1, the two teams rested in good weather at this location where they observed Koshuta and Jones ascending the route between 4575 meters and 4785 meters. On June 2, the Black Diamond and Idaho teams ascended to 4550 meters, stopping here due to light snow and spindrift avalanches. Later that evening, Tony Moats and Chris Whittaker, “New Skids,” arrived at this level. All three teams departed the next day and ascended to 4800 meters. Late that evening Moats and Whittaker saw someone dressed in red ascending the second rock band at 4900 meters. Later at midnight, Flanagen saw someone at 4970 meters. On June 4, all three teams departed the 4785 meter camp and ascended to 5330 meters. As they climbed past the last technical difficulty, they observed a very recent tent platform dug out in the last day, indicating very recent usage. Over the next two days a cold storm struck the mountain with winds blowing a steady 30-80 kph and gusts to 100 kph. On the 7th, all seven continued higher with New Skids and Idaho ascending to 5500 meters and the Black Diamond pair ascending to 6125 meters. On the 8th, the winds continued again.

The New Skids went to the summit and then down the West Buttress to 4320 meters. Black Diamond went to the summit and down to 5950 meters on the West Buttress. On the 9th, the Idaho team made the summit and descended to 4320 meters on the West Buttress. All three teams observed no further sign of Koshuta and Jones.

On June 10, the Talkeetna Ranger Station began to make inquiries into the status of the Washington Square team since they were two days overdue. On the 11th, Mary Koshuta provided additional information which made it possible to check the Washington Square’s caches left on the West Buttress. The Idaho team uncovered the cache at 3350 meters where it had not been disturbed. It was apparent an air search was needed. Extensive aerial flights began with both fixed with aircraft and Army helicopters. (The Army was available because of a rescue taking place on the West Buttress.) Search efforts continued until the bodies of Koshuta and Jones were spotted on the 12th at 4800 meters, four-fifths of the distance between the Cassin and West Rib. It appeared they had fallen roped together. They were buried at their location because of the difficulty a ground evacuation would encounter. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

Analysis

Koshuta and Jones attempted the traverse from the Cassin Ridge to the West Rib some time between June 5 and June 7. It is uncertain whether they were belaying, but it appears they were not when the fall occurred. Jones was obviously leading and dressed lightly while Koshuta was dressed much warmer. Due to this clothing difference, they probably had belayed sections of the traverse. If they had placed protection, their fall may have been stopped.

It will remain unknown what prompted the two to attempt the traverse, but a reasonable guess would suggest they needed off the Cassin because of the shortage in food and fuel and the possibility the severe weather on the 5th and 6th had damaged their tent. There are many other altitude related possibilities. In any case, they attempted the traverse.

They had been cautioned about the difficulties in attempting the traverse and about it not being a safe route for an escape off the Cassin. In light of this warning and the fact that there were seven strong climbers just 250 meters below them, a descent of the Cassin would have been the safest option. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)