American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Fatigue, Dehydration, Weather, Determination to Summit, Alaska, Mount McKinley

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  • Publication Year: 1994

FALL ON SNOW, FATIGUE, DEHYDRATION, WEATHER, DETERMINATION TO SUMMIT

Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 15, 1993, the Colorado Marmot Expedition started their climb of the West Buttress Route. The climb went routinely from the landing strip to the high camp at 17,000 feet. The group had unsuccessfully attempted the West Buttress in 1988 and were familiar with the route, weather, and logistics.

On May 24, the expedition split into two groups for the climb to the summit. Both groups made the summit. It took them 9.5 hours round trip from 17,000 feet. Don Cook said the groups were determined to make the summit partly because of their previous failure, and mostly to the forecast that included deteriorating weather. The climbers were exhausted from the summit climb. They ate and drank very little that night and the next morning. A rest day was proposed to gain strength for the descent to 14,000 feet. This idea was abandoned because the weather conditions at 14,000 feet were reported to be fair, and at their present position the weather was deteriorating.

On May 25 the weather conditions at 17,000 included near whiteout visibility, and winds gusting to 30 to 40 knots. The expedition decided to descend. They roped into two pairs. Don Cook (62) and Dan Bereck had 50 feet of rope tied between themselves. At times Cook could not see Bereck who was in front. The wind gusts were strong enough that it was necessary to lean into the prevailing direction. Sometimes Cook would be thrown off balance by an unexpected strong gust.

They passed Washburn's Thumb when the ridge narrowed forcing them to walk with their feet on opposite sides. Bereck in front reached a horizontal stretch of ridge and progressed slowly to allow Cook to negotiate the narrowed ridge. Cook had both feet on the south side of the ridge and began to place his right foot on the north side of the ridge. The north side was also the leeward side and a soft, slabby snow layer had developed on it. Cook as best he could stamped his right foot on the slab and began shifting his weight onto it. The slab broke away and caused Cook to drop.

Cook attempted to lever himself on the ridge by flinging and draping both arms over the ridge. He was unable to hold himself and began to slide and cartwheel down toward the Peter's Glacier. Bereck yelled to Cook, as he slid, to arrest himself. Cook’s ice axe was attached to him by a tether, but he was unable to grasp it as he hurtled toward a field of rocks. Cook slid onto these rocks and stopped. Meanwhile, Bereck was standing on the level ridge preparing to arrest the fall. Cook assessed his injures as a bruised elbow and ribs and continued his descent. Cook found it painful and slow descending the fixed lines.

Cook and Bereck were able to descend to the ranger camp without further incident. Ranger Miller treated Cook and found his blood pressure to be normal, but his oxygen saturation was 85%. Miller administered oxygen. A Navy doctor assessed Cook with possibly having a broken rib. Jim Wheeler, another doctor, also agreed with this assessment.

Ranger Miller presented several options to Cook concerning his evacuation. Cook felt great pain when he moved and asked the doctors what he should do. Both thought Cook should not walk down, so Miller requested a helicopter evacuation.

Analysis

The section of ridge between 17,000 feet and 16,000 feet contains steep and exposed terrain. Cook and Bereck negotiated this terrain in poor weather conditions and in weak physical condition. The likelihood of a mishap is increased with these parameters. Any time it snows, and especially when there is wind associated with a storm, slopes may become unstable. A soft slab developed on the lee side of the ridge. This shallow slab broke away initiating Cooks slide. Cook’s weakened physical state may have affected his inability to self-arrest. (Source: Kevin Moore, NPS Ranger, Denali National Park)

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