American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Avalanche, Weather, Alaska, Mount Foraker

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

AVALANCHE, WEATHER

Alaska, Mount Foraker

On June 14, 1992, Tom Walter (34), Ritt Kellogg (28), and Colby Coombs (25) skied from the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to the base of the “Pink Panther” on the East Face of Mount Foraker. Approximately three inches of new snow fell on the evening and night of the 14th.

On the morning of the 15th, the weather cleared. Walter, Kellogg, and Coombs began climbing the lower one third of the route called the “S Couloir,” a steep snow and ice couloir interspersed with rock bands. They camped at a level area at the base of a cornice ridge line on the top of this couloir. It snowed again that night.

On the morning of the 16th, they were unable to climb due to poor weather. Late in the day the weather cleared and they began climbing the cornice ridge which marks the middle third of the route. They climbed through the night, and completed this portion early on June 17. They arrived at the base of the final rock buttress, which marks the last third of the route, as the weather deteriorated. They dug a snow cave and bivouacked, waiting out the poor weather.

On June 18, the weather remained poor with additional snow accumulation. Early in the evening of the 18th the weather cleared. They began climbing the final rock buttress. The weather remained good until the final 300 feet, when it deteriorated with wind and poor visibility. They completed climbing the rock buttress and intended to stop and bivouac at the first opportunity. They continued to climb up the final 50 to 60 degree snow and ice slope above the rock buttress, anticipating a bivouac site at the crest of the Southeast Ridge about 13,500 feet.

At this time Walter was leading the rope team with Coombs in the middle and Kellogg at the end. There was 150 feet of rope between each, and they were ascending simultaneously at the same rate. They were not belaying. It is likely that no anchors were being used as running belay points.

Late that night, about one hour after topping out on the rock buttress and while climbing the upper portion of the final snow and ice slope at 13,100 feet, they were hit by an avalanche at a point approximately 400 feet below the crest of the ridge and 700 feet above the top of the rock buttress. As Coombs was hit with snow from above, he began to self-arrest with his ice axe. He was pushed downhill by avalanche debris for approximately 20 feet before being flipped over backwards and falling and tumbling out of control. Coombs was knocked unconscious and does not remember coming to a stop.

Early in the morning of the 19th, Coombs regained consciousness and found himself hanging by the climbing rope in the upper part of the rock buttress near 12,300 feet. Coombs was mentally oriented as to person and place, but disoriented as to time and purpose. He was experiencing pain over his entire body, and felt hypothermic. The climbing rope between Coombs and Walter was looped over a rock outcropping overhead, which prevented a much longer fall. Walter was hanging by the rope a short distance away, and Coombs was able to climb to him. Walter's face was covered with snow. Coombs cleared the airway and checked for a pulse, and determined that Walter was dead. Coombs removed a crampon and Walter's pack and clipped it into the slack rope between himself and Kellogg. During his efforts to escape from the rope system, Coombs cut the climbing rope between himself and Walter. Walter's body fell and slid out of sight into the rock buttress. Coombs then downclimbed a short distance to a small rock ledge, where he set up a double ice axe anchor and tied off Walter's pack. He yelled down attempting to contact Kellogg, but without success. Coombs then set up a bivouac on the ledge and attempted to rest for the remainder of the day and night.

On the morning of June 20, Coombs rappelled from his bivouac site approximately 130 feet down the rope between him and Kellogg and found Kellogg hanging upside down and tangled in the rope. Kellogg's face was covered with snow and he had no pulse. Large amounts of blood were streaked in the snow near his body. Coombs stated that it appeared obvious that Kellogg had died from multiple traumatic injuries. Kellogg fell an additional 20 feet as the climbing rope untangled itself while Coombs examined the body. Coombs descended the remainder of the rope, tied Kellogg to an ice axe anchor, and cut the climbing rope from Kellogg. He removed a tent and fuel from Kellogg's pack and reascended the rope back to his bivouac ledge. Coombs then traversed approximately 700 feet southeast and camped in a bergschrund near the crest of the Southeast Ridge.

On June 21, 22, and 23, Coombs descended the Southeast Ridge. The descent required numerous rappels, and unprotected downclimbing on steep slopes and through heavily crevassed areas. Coombs’ progress was slow due to injuries sustained during his fall on the 18th. Late on June 23 he arrived at the base of the Pink Panther route, picked up extra equipment cached there, and began crossing the Kahiltna Glacier.

On June 24, about 0500, Coombs arrived at basecamp on the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Exhausted, he camped in a tent left ten days earlier. At 1230 Coombs reported the incident to the Talkeetna Ranger Station via Basecamp Manager Annie Duquette. On June 25 at 0100, Coombs was examined by Ranger Jim Phillips. Coombs had pain in his neck, left shoulder, and left ankle. He was advised to minimize activity, have his left arm and ankle splinted, and fly directly from basecamp to Humana Hospital in Anchorage. Poor weather delayed evacuation for four days. Phillips reexamined Coombs and monitored his condition several times daily.

On June 28 at 0900, Coombs was flown to Talkeetna at his own expense by K2 Aviation. He was then transported by private vehicle to Humana Hospital and diagnosed as having a fractured cervical vertebrae, fractured left scapula, and a fractured left ankle.

Aerial searches on June 30 and July 1 revealed no further evidence or sign of Walter or Kellogg.

Analysis

Walter, Kellogg, and Coombs were each highly skilled mountaineers, with extensive Alaska Range experience. Although the Pink Panther route is considered a very difficult route by Alaska Range standards, Coombs stated that it was well within his team's technical ability. Coombs also stated that the climbers constantly reevaluated their situation and assessed the hazards, and felt that they were climbing conservatively. He does not know what he would have done differently.

The climbers ascended the route in three days, half the time required for the first ascent. They were climbing for long (approximately 20 hours) periods between rests. Although that is not unusual for fast and light alpine style ascents, fatigue may have been a contributing factor to the accident.

Deteriorating weather at the time of the accident created poor visibility to the point that Coombs was unable to see Walter 150 feet ahead. This may have prevented them from recognizing hazardous avalanche conditions.

The exact cause of the avalanche is unknown. Unsettled weather during the climb produced light to moderate snowfall amounts. At times winds were moderate to strong at high elevations. Potentially unstable snow conditions were present in some locations. The site was a broad, open snow and ice slope 50 degrees or steeper. Coombs stated that conditions were hard neve snow over ice, and that this surface did not and could not have slid. The avalanche was triggered at a location somewhere above Coombs. He speculates that either a loose snow avalanche sluffed down from above and hit the climbers, or Walter triggered a small, isolated slab avalanche. When the site was investigated from the air on July 1, there was no sign of a crown surface, cornice break, or any other signs of the avalanche.

Coombs was able to rule out a climbing fall as the cause of the accident. They were definitely hit by moving snow, which caused them to fall. On dangerous and exposed terrain they belayed or used running anchor points and climbed simultaneously. At the time of the accident, however, the terrain and conditions were perceived as not requiring belays or anchor points, and the team climbed simultaneously without anchor points. The use of running anchor points may have prevented the long fall which resulted from the avalanche. The evidence discovered at the scene on July 1 indicates that the climbing team fell at least 700 vertical feet. (Source: Jim Phillips, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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