FALL ON ICE, POOR POSITION, PLACED NO PROTECTION
Alaska, Mount Foraker
On June 8, 1991, while descending an icy couloir on approach to the Infinite Spur on the south side of Mount Foraker, William McConachie (McC—39) fell and, unable to self-arrest, tumbled past his partner, Laurent Terray (30), who had started down first, and jerked Terray from his feet. Terray estimates that they tumbled and slid for about 300 feet down ice and snow through several rock bands. Both climbers were wearing crampons and heavy packs. Terray was descending using ski poles. McC was using an ice ax in one hand and ski poles in the other, and was wearing his helmet. Both climbers sustained deep abrasions to their hands and faces, various bruises, tweaked body parts, and broken bones. Two weeks later (after their injuries stabilized somewhat and they had rescued themselves), they learned the extent of their injuries beyond the readily apparent abrasions and bruises. Terray had a broken ankle. McConachie had nine broken ribs (eight on his left side), punctured and partially collapsed his left lung (pneumo/hemothorax), tore one of the AC ligaments in his left shoulder, and tore a tendon on his left hand. Both climbers were suffering. McC was essentially immobilized by shock and intense pain for three days—any movement, including breathing, resulted in ominous grating and popping noises and exacerbation of the pain.
While they waited to be noticed, their injuries stabilized. One plane flew by a week after the fall but failed to notice them despite their yellow bivouac tent, signal lines on the snow, and attempts to reflect sunlight at the plane with their cooking pot. Three days later they began their painful self-rescue. Terray crawled while McConachie hobbled to get back to their cached equipment and radio, which was located two passes and about five miles away. They were on the move for 12 hours the first “night” and 17 the second. When they arrived at their cache near the base of the SE ridge of Foraker, they were unable to get a response from the radio operator at the air strip on the SE fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, some six or seven miles away, but were able to contact David Lee of Talkeetna Air Taxi, who was flying by. Lee landed some 600 plus yards away (it seemed like miles) and flew them back to Talkeetna. Enroute to the Anchorage International Airport the next day, Terray got his ankle x-rayed and a soft cast. After returning home the next day, McC was examined by his personal physician, x- rayed in a nearby emergency room, and detained for observation overnight after a thoracentesis was performed.
I am still not sure how I started my fall. I am experienced and cautious. I was trying to downclimb quickly and carefully, but suddenly found myself falling. My supergaiters show no evidence of having caught a gaiter with my crampons. The surface was icy and steep. Perhaps I dinner-plated off a slab of ice and slipped on it. I should have merely faced into the slope and downclimbed, front pointing as necessary. I could also have asked Terray to stop and give me a belay (from below) down the steep upper section of the gully.
In retrospect, I will be cautious with regard to the taking of aspirin for pain when there’s the possibility of internal bleeding.
Also, given the facial abrasions and sore neck (not to mention my other injuries) which I suffered even though I was wearing my helmet, I am really glad that I had my helmet on.
The next time I’m climbing in a remote area, I’ll strongly consider arranging for a fly-by part of the way through my climb by whatever air taxi service I use. (Source: William McConachie)
(Editors Note: In a lengthier narrative, Mr. McConachie said that he and Terray, who had to crawl on his hands and knees, talked about Doug Scott’s accident on the Ogre and how he had made the descent and crawled out with two broken legs. Taking 12 hours to move a mile and a half and another 17 to attain the second pass and descend to their cache—Terray taking no pain medication—demonstrates once again that self-reliance and the will to survive are desirable ingredients for remote expedition endeavors.)