American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Frostbite, Exposure, Weather, Alaska, Mount Foraker

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1994

FROSTBITE, EXPOSURE,WEATHER

Alaska, Mount Foraker

On April 4, 1993, the Alaskan Archangel Expedition, consisting of eight British servicemen, flew into Lake Minchumina for the approach to Mount Foraker.

On April 5, they began their approach up the Foraker River by dogsled. A cache was buried at the terminus of the Foraker Glacier, for supplying the return trip.

The itinerary was approach to Mount Foraker via the Archangel Ridge—April 15 to May 15; climb Mount Foraker via the Archangel Ridge—April 15 to May 15; return to Wonder Lake airstrip—May 16 to May 25.

The approach went without incident. The expedition progressed well with their climb. A safe base camp was built at 5,700 feet on the Foraker Glacier. Camp 1 was located at 8,500 feet on the route. A fixed line was installed from the glacier to Camp 1 to protect load carriers, as this section involved technical difficulties. Camp 2 was located at 12,000 feet. There is a long exposed knife ridge between Camps 1 and 2. Camp 3 at 14,000 feet was the high camp from where the climbers would attempt the summit.

The nature of the group's strategy was to ascend the mountain expedition style. On April 25, Paul Edwards (27), James Gallagher (33) and David Peel (31) were at Camp 3 preparing for a summit attempt. Below them at Camp 2 were more climbers who measured the temperature in the tent this morning to be -20 C. The climbers at Camp 3 noticed the weather was deteriorating. They discussed the cold and approaching weather, and decided to climb to the summit.

The three climbers were well outfitted, including overmitts, down parkas, both supergaiters and neoprene overboots. They began climbing at 1100. Winds of 55 mph were encountered on the summit ridge. They were exposed to a combination of wind and cold temperatures. Edwards said it didn’t take long for this combination to permeate his clothing and make him cold. Edwards gripped his axe at the adze which was not wrapped with insulation. This made his hands cold. The three climbed to the summit and returned to Camp 3. Peel continued descending to Camp 2 (12,000 feet). It began snowing in the evening and continued until 0200. Over a foot of snow accumulated.

On April 27, Gallagher frostbit his fingers in the morning, while lighting the stove. Edwards and Gallagher abandoned Camp 3, leaving the tent, and descended to Camp 2, arriving at 1130. They abandoned Camp 2 also, leaving at 1300. While negotiating the knife edge, Gallagher fell 120 feet belayed by a single picket, leaving him somewhat shocky, and slowing his descent rate.

At 2215, the entire expedition was safe in basecamp. At 2300 Peel, a trained medic, assessed and treated the frostbite injuries. Peel assessed himself and Gallagher as having minor frostbite and Edwards as having a more serious case. The treatment consisted of 20 minute soaks in 42° C. water containing 2% Savlon.

On April 28, the group attempted to reclaim its abandoned camps and fixed ropes but reckoned there was an avalanche hazard. They decided to initiate an evacuation.

The three frostbitten climbers would stay at basecamp and try to summon help using an aircraft radio, while the five healthy climbers would trek to Wonder Lake.

On May 3 the injured climbers made radio contact with an over passing military jet. They asked for a rescue and gave their position and injuries. By 2100, the Lama helicopter positioned in Talkeetna picked them up and then they were flown to Anchorage by K-2 Aviation.

Analysis

On the summit day Peel, Edwards, and Gallagher discussed going to the summit in the cold temperatures, factoring in the approaching weather. They assumed the risk and elected to go for the summit. The high winds they encountered on the summit ridge were not calculated very well into their original decision. They again elected to go on. The combination of subzero temperatures and high winds are prime conditions to cause frostbite.

Their proximity to the summit was a strong persuasion for them to continue. The fact that they froze flesh, abandoned camps, and one took a huge fall reveals they were challenging their limits. (Source: Kevin Moore, NPS Ranger, Denali National Park)

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