American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Descending Unroped, Exceeding Abilities, Alaska, Mount McKinley

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1993

FALL ON SNOW, DESCENDING UNROPED, EXCEEDING ABILITIES

Alaska, Mount McKinley

At approximately mid day on May 20, 1992, Soo Yang Yung (29), Sung Tak Hong (26) and Seong Jong Jin (25) from Korea were killed while attempting to descend the Orient Express route on Mount McKinley. The three fell several thousand feet to the 15,800 foot level. On May 23, the three victims were extricated from the 15,800 foot location by the NPS contract LAMA helicopter and transported to the Kahiltna basecamp. From here they were flown to Talkeetna.

Analysis

A Fantasy Ridge guided party led by Chip Faurot was camped near the three at several of these locations. Faurot commented that he noticed the Koreans “were not comfortable on the terrain, especially exposed off camber ice.” Faurot observed Hong fall several times while ascending Fantasy Ridges fixed line at 12,800 feet. After several days of stormy weather, the three moved to 15,200 feet. The Koreans had plans to traverse down to the 14,200 foot camp on the West Buttress from their camp at 14,800 feet, but unfortunately found they were in the wrong place. On this same day, the three other members that were ascending the West Buttress made an attempt to meet up with the three on the Rib in order to give a hand assisting the Rib team down to the West Buttress route. It appears the three Rib climbers were not certain where they were on the route as discrepancies were discovered. Their reported locations were often 1000 feet off of what they told their West Buttress party compared to what was observed by Faurot. The three on the Rib indicated they were at 17,200 feet when actually they were at 15,200 feet. From May 14 through May 16, they encountered strong winds which kept them tent bound. By May 16, they reported two to three days of food left. The weather improved on the 27th where the three ascended to 16,200 feet. They took a rest day on the 18th where their West Buttress team suffered a serious crevasse collapse forcing the evacuation of one of their members. At an 0800 radio call on May 19, the Rib team indicated they would be making an attempt for the summit this day. Due to the circumstances with the accident the night before, the West Buttress team requested that the Rib team descend back to the 14,200 foot camp on the West Buttress. The Rib team declined and indicated they would try for the summit and hoped to be on top by 1600.

A group of NOLS instructors left for the summit on the same day as the Koreans. Willie Peabody of the NOLS group passed the Koreans at 16,500 feet on the 19th. The Koreans, like the NOLS group, had full packs and were planning on carrying everything to the plateau (19,500 feet), then descending the West Buttress. The NOLS group reached the plateau and encountered extremely cold and windy conditions with poor visibility. They descended the West Buttress after seeing the Koreans for the last time at 17,900 feet on the West Bib.

The West Buttress Koreans received no communication from the Bib team until 1000 on the 20th. On this call they reported that they had not reached the summit and were in a snow cave because of very strong winds. Their tent was damaged, they were out of food and indicated that they would be descending down to the 14,200 foot camp this day. This was the last communication with the Bib team. Since they were last seen at 17,900 feet, their camp was most likely high on the West Bib in a very exposed area.

This descent route is no easy escape route even in good weather without heavy packs. The trio succumbed as a result of making the same fatal mistake that has taken a dozen other climbers in the last 20 years. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Banger, Denali National Park)

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