American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Avalanche, Inadequate Equipment, Alaska, Bold Peak

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1991

FALL ON SNOW, AVALANCHE, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT

Alaska, Bold Peak

On June 3, 1990, two experienced Alaskan mountaineers set out to climb Bold Peak (2286 meters) located in the Eklutna Lake area of the Chugach Mountains. They planned the ascent to take two days, the first for the approach and the second for ascent, descent, and departure. The approach, from 265 meters, involved almost ten kilometers via mountain bike over unimproved dirt road followed by several kilometers on foot to treeline and then over tundra, gradually climbing to the base of the northwest face of Bold Peak. Here the climbers, Tim Doyle (38) and Mark Norquist (34), set up their base camp at the 1200 meter level.

They left their base camp at 0700, June 4. Carrying what Doyle describes as “only the bare essentials of climbing,” they crossed a small glacier to reach the base of some large snowfields dominating the northwest face. As they ascended steep slopes, the climbers crossed many snow trenches left by small avalanches and wet snow slides. They gained the northeast ridge at 1400, and reached the summit an hour later. After resting on the summit, Doyle and Norquist began retracing their earlier route on descent.

By the time they reached the face, the snow had softened in direct afternoon sun. The soft, wet snow formed icy balls under their crampons as they crossed the open snowfield. The face was now striped with many slide paths. Before reaching his intended glissade route, Doyle fell and was instantly swept head first into a large trough.

Trapped in the trough, there was no escape. Doyle recalls, “My self-arrest wouldn’t hold. There was no hope of control. The noise level rose as I gathered momentum. There was no air to breathe.”

He finally rolled to a stop after sliding about 600 vertical meters. The wet avalanche had deposited him on the surface of the snowfield. Norquist found Doyle 20 minutes later, sitting upright in avalanche debris. It appeared that Doyle had suffered a broken ankle and contusions covering his face and head. After deciding that Doyle’s condition was somewhat stable, Norquist left the accident site to retrieve overnight gear from base camp. Doyle remained at 1500 meters dressed in all their excess clothing and lying on the insulation of a rope, pack, and some webbing. Doyle, immobilized by his injuries, would need a comfortable bivouac, while Norquist went for help.

Approximately 15 minutes after they parted, another avalanche struck Doyle, carrying him further down the slope and leaving him nearly buried. The second slide was larger than the first, and deposited him upside down with only one foot sticking out of the snow. Over an hour would pass before his release.

Norquist returned to what he thought was the original accident site, but could find no trace of Doyle. He climbed at least 150 vertical meters higher in search of his partner, and then descended with a full view of the snowfield. He found Doyle’s exposed leg wiggling among the icy blocks of the second avalanche. The extrication took at least 20 minutes. The snow had set hard and the only tools Norquist had were his ice ax and hands, their only shovel having been lost earlier.

Norquist moved his partner to a safer bivouac spot, placed Doyle in a sleeping bag and attempted to stabilize his condition before leaving for help at 2030. He then ran down past the place where he and Doyle had hidden and double locked their bikes. He didn’t stop there because, although he had remembered Doyle’s key, he had accidentally discarded his own while changing clothes to run for help. He ran the ten kilometers to the parking lot and drove to the nearby Eklutna Ranger Station. The Alaska State Troopers received his call on 0200 on June 4.

The Troopers initiated an emergency callout to the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG). By 0400, a Bell 206 helicopter from the State Department of Forestry and several members of the AMRG team had arrived at the ranger station. Seven rescuers were flown to the accident site to aid the evacuation.

Tim Doyle was in good spirits despite spending a long, pain-filled night on the snow. He was treated for a broken ankle, dehydration and possible back injuries before being placed in a litter for transport. A helicopter landing zone had to be shoveled out of the avalanche debris. The litter was placed crosswise in the back half of the helicopter from which the back seats and door had been removed. An attendant rode back with the patient, whose feet hung out of the helicopter.

Doyle was transferred to a waiting ambulance at the Eklutna Ranger Station at 0530. His actual injuries included: broken right tibia and fibula, right shoulder dislocation, dislocation of both hips, broken fingers and toes, and major contusions of his head, face and hands. (Source: To prepare this report, I interviewed Tom Doyle and Mark Norquist twice each and read all of their published accounts. Steve Brown, ViceChairperson— Alaska Mountain Rescue Group)

Analysis

The climbers were off to a leisurely, if not late, start at 0700. This resulted in their late afternoon descent with wet snow conditions. In June, the northwest face receives both morning and afternoon sun. Although both were aware of the unstable conditions and recent slide activity, they chose to continue down the open face. Gambling with this route, rather than attempting another more stable, protected one (the Northeast Ridge), set the stage for the accidents which followed.

Although both climbers now recall the slope on the ascent as having been solid and frozen, their summit register entry complains of sloppy snow. The freezing level was high at the time of the accident, probably staying above 2500 meters during what passes for night in the Chugach in early June.

After Doyle’s first fall, Norquist attempted to move him to safety, but did not clear him completely from the many slide paths. Neither climber carried an avalanche transceiver and they had only one shovel. They were not equipped for avalanche conditions. Doyle survived burial in the second avalanche through luck, fortitude and the perseverance of his partner.

Norquist made two difficult decisions, concluding that he must leave Doyle alone and injured on the snowfields of Bold Peak. He had to have great willpower to complete the 19 hours of strenuous physical and emotional activity required to save Doyle and get help for the evacuation. The rescue effort by the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, coordinated with the Alaska State Troopers, was simplified by Doyle’s miraculously stable condition. From the time Norquist first contacted the Troopers, it took less than four hours to complete the evacuation. (Source: Steve Brown and Ken Zafren, M.D., Alaska Mountain Rescue Group)

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