American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Snow Lip/Bridge Collapse—Fall Into Crevasse, Inadequate Belay, Weather, Alaska, Mount McKinley

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  • Publication Year: 1993

SNOW LIP/BRIDGE COLLAPSE—FALL INTO CREVASSE, INADEQUATE BELAY, WEATHER

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 4, 1992, Mugs Stump (41)—a guide for Mountain Trip—and his clients Nelson Max (40) and Robert Hoffman (45) began climbing the 1965 Japanese Ramp Route on the South Buttress of Mount McKinley. The team established a base camp on the upper part of the East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and made at least one carry of food and equipment up the Ramp before moving their camp onto the South Buttress. The Ramp, a steep and crevassed glacier that descends the South Buttress from 15,600 feet and feeds into the East Fork about 11,600 feet, is known for its objective hazards from crevasses, ice fall, and avalanches. On May 20, Stump and Max reached the summit of Mount McKinley via the Southeast Spur Finish in extremely adverse weather conditions.

On May 21, about 1130, Stump and his clients began their descent from high camp at 16,000 feet on the Southeast Spur in generally good weather. At 1300 they began descending the Ramp. First on the rope team was Hoffman, followed by Max, who was tied in a short distance behind, and Stump at the end of the rope with a greater length of rope between him and Max than between Max and Hoffman. There were no tracks left from their ascent, and Hoffman followed Stump's directions for route finding. They crossed a large slope beneath and slightly south of some seracs and an ice cliff as they approached a large crevasse. Hoffman stated he felt they were at a point further left of where they crossed this crevasse on their ascent. He stated that Stump had a sense of urgency to get off the slope and away from the avalanche path overhead. The air temperature had warmed and snow conditions were soft. Hoffman stopped near the edge of this crevasse, unsure of how to proceed. Stump approached the crevasse from uphill, passing by Max and Hoffman, to inspect the route. He was standing on the uphill lip of the crevasse and appeared to be inspecting a flimsy looking snowbridge. Hoffman said that he heard a “crack,” and then Stump suddenly disappeared into the crevasse. He pulled in approximately 15 feet of slack rope between him and Max before Max was pulled off his feet. Max attempted to self-arrest, but was pulled toward the crevasse for approximately 20 feet before stopping. The rope between him and Stump became slack, and there was no longer force pulling Max down.

Max and Hoffman anchored the climbing rope. They attempted to contact Stump by yelling, but were without success. At this time, about 1330, the weather deteriorated with clouds and poor visibility. Feeling in a very precarious position on the uphill side of the crevasse, they cut the rope and tied it to a ski pole. They traversed around to the right to cross the crevasse and approached the accident site from below.

Hoffman stated that a large portion of the crevasse lip, approximately eight feet wide by four feet long and ten feet deep, had caved in. This volume of hard snow and ice was wedged into the crevasse as it tapered in at a point approximately 35 feet below the upper lip and 25 feet below the lower lip. The crevasse was ten feet wide at the top. Approximately two hours after Stump's fall, Max rappelled into the crevasse. He described the debris as a large volume of very hard and dense snow and ice about 15 feet deep. Large blocks were wedged into the crevasse. The climbing rope entered the debris from the top. There was no sign of Stump or the rope from beneath the debris. The crevasse was at least 60 feet deeper from the bottom of the debris. Max attempted to dig through the snow and ice and along the rope to find Stump, but without success. He pulled on the rope and yelled for Stump, but there was no response. Max and Hoffman felt that it was almost impossible for a person to survive such a fall and burial by the blocks and debris. Max felt that by digging further, he was in danger of loosening the blocks and being buried himself. Because of the perceived danger, their condition, the weather, and low probability of survival, Max and Hoffman decided to abandon their efforts to find Stump.

It was getting late in the day as Max and Hoffman continued their descent off the Ramp. In poor visibility, and dehydrated, frostbitten, and unsure of the route down from having lost their guide, they decided to camp for the night.

On May 22, Mark Bunker and Don Preiss, who were camped at 11,400 feet on the East Fork, heard distress calls from Max and Hoffman. At 0830 they began climbing up the Ramp and met Max and Hoffman at 12,600 feet. At 1300, Preiss reported the incident on CB radio to Gary Bocarde on the West Rib, who relayed the message to basecamp. Bunker and Preiss assisted Max and Hoffman in descending to camp at 11,400 feet.

At 1400, Ranger Jim Phillips and pilot Jim Hetton evacuated Max and Hoffman from 11,400 feet on the East Fork with the NPS Lama helicopter. Hoffman and Max had frostbite and were exhausted. The climbers showed Phillips the location of the accident at 14,700 feet on the Ramp. Hoffman and Max were then flown to basecamp and then to Talkeetna.

At 1435, Rangers Jim Phillips and Renny Jackson, in the NPS Lama helicopter, returned to the accident site at 14,700 feet on the Ramp. They observed the crevasse with Stumps climbing rope tied off to a ski pole above the crevasse. A large volume of debris with big chunks of snow and ice was wedged into the crevasse as Hoffman and Max had described. They hovered over the crevasse, looking for any sign of life. Due to the location and elevation of the nearest landing zone (16,000 feet), the fact that the incident occurred more than 25 hours earlier, and the exposure of rescuers to excessive hazards, a rescue/recovery effort was not initiated.

Stump's body remains buried on the mountain. Max was admitted to Humana Hospital in Anchorage for treatment of frostbite on both feet.

Analysis

This accident illustrates the hazards of climbing on glaciated terrain even for the most competent of mountaineers. Even when climbers are roped, crevasse falls can be fatal.

Slack rope between Stump and Max caused Stump to fall an excessive distance. A belay in this case would have provided a more secure rope system for stopping the fall. The size of crevasses on Alaska Range glaciers can be deceiving because of large overhanging lips. (Source: Jim Phillips, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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