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Fall on Snow, Ascending Too Fast, HAPE, Inadequate Equipment, Placed No Protection, Descending Unroped, Alaska, Mount McKinley


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On May 14 Charles Cearley (40) and the Edwards brothers flew into Kahiltna base camp. Their climbing itinerary was first to attempt the Lowe/Kennedy Route on Mount Hunter, and then go on to Denali’s Cassin Ridge.

While in base camp they heard the avalanche conditions on Mount Hunter were hazardous. They waited until they thought the route was safe. While approaching the route, minutes away from the base, an avalanche crashed down, alarming the Edwards brothers. Cearley said that it would be a good time to climb, because the avalanche scoured the route of any more hazard. The Edwards brothers refused to go on the route, based on the occurrence of avalanches.

They abandoned the climb on Hunter and spent several days exploring the area, including a trip to 10,000 feet on the West Buttress of Denali. They decided to climb Denali’s West Rib.

On May 25 they began climbing the initial couloir on the West Rib. The temperature was extremely warm and the conditions in the couloir were wet from melting ice and snow. Rocks and ice began to tumble down the path of the couloir as their bonds melted away. Midway in the couloir, the Edwards brothers found shelter, climbing right under a rock. They called for Cearley to get out of the line of fire. Cearley wanted to continue up the couloir. This was the second incident that concerned the Edwards brothers regarding Cearley's attitude toward the climb.

They ascended the West Rib at a fast rate, even though they had only been to 10,000 feet and were not acclimatized to higher altitudes. The Edwards brothers began making excuses to slow Cearley’s insistent pace. They felt they were going too high too fast. On May 29 they met the West Rib 93 Expedition who used the cut off to reach the West Ridge. They camped at 16,400 feet in close proximity to each other.

On May 30 both parties set out for the summit. The West Rib 93 group was a half hour ahead. Cearley and the Edwards started out roped together. Todd Edwards was leading, placing pickets while they simultaneously climbed. Cearley was in the rear, impatient with the pace. Scott noticed Charles was reeling in yards of rope. He would not maintain the proper distance to keep the rope taut. At 17,600 feet they decided to unrope, considering they were comfortable with the conditions and the slope angle. Cearley raced ahead passing the West Rib 93 expedition at the plateau and continued on toward the summit. The Edwards brothers reached the plateau and could see Cearley ascending the final head wall before the summit. They met near the head wall and Cearley said he was going to descend to camp at 16,400 feet. The Edwards brothers asked Charles to wait for them because Todd was feeling sick. The Edwards brother rendezvoused with Cearley and the West Rib Expedition at the edge of the plateau where the Orient Express Couloir drops away. Cearley said he had a headache and was trying to brew some water.

Cearley and the Edwards started down the Orient Express, ahead of the West Rib 93 group. They descended approximately 200 feet to a point where their route of ascension traversed across the steep Orient Express. The snow conditions allowed for secure plunge steps. Scott was concerned about the physical condition of Todd and Charles. Scott and Todd decided the group should rope up and use pickets to safeguard the descent. Scott and Todd stopped, plunged their axes to the head in the snow and anchored themselves. They called to Charles, who was carrying the coiled rope in the rear, to come down to them and rope up. Charles had his ice axe in a holster and was using a ski pole in his hand. Cearley descended to a position just below Todd Edwards. Cearley began to sit down and remove his pack in the same motion. As his buttocks contacted the snow, his heels gave way beneath him. Todd felt a tug on his pack as Charles tried to prevent himself from sliding away. Cearley began to slide downhill on his back. Cearley picked up velocity and rolled onto his side. The brothers urged him to self-arrest, but he was unable to penetrate the snow without an ice axe. Cearley began to tumble and then to cartwheel in airy bounds. The West Rib 93 Expedition witnessed the slip and the initial side. The Edwards brothers watched Charles fall the entire 3,000 feet, and were sure he didn’t survive.

The West Rib 93 Expedition immediately called base camp on a CB radio, and described the event. West Rib 93 then descended to the brothers and roped up together with them. The two expeditions were very cold and slowly made their way down to their high camp.

Cearley's remains were flown out on May 31.


Cearley and the Edwards climbed the West Rib in five days without previous acclimatization above 10,000 feet. Charles Cearley and Todd Edwards were experiencing symptoms of High Altitude Cerebral Edema before the accident.

Cearley carried his ice axe in a holster and not in his hand while descending. Cearley's glove was found in the wrist loop of the ski pole, indicating that his hand may have been through the wrist loop. This would make a self-arrest using the ski pole difficult. An ice axe is the tool of choice on the terrain he was negotiating.

It was noted that Cearley's crampons were ill-fitted to his boots, and that the heel points were inset in relation to the heel of his boots. This may have caused his feet to give way beneath him as he leaned back to sit down.

When the two brothers stopped to wait for Cearley, they used their ice axes as anchors. When he reached them, he did not set an anchor. A simple ice axe anchor might have prevented Cearley's slide.

The decision to travel unroped was made consciously. The climbers thought they would be comfortable and accepted the risk. When they became uneasy with the environment, they acted and stopped to rope up. If they could have foreseen that they would want to rope up, the rope and pickets employed sooner might have prevented the long slide. (Source: Kevin Moore, NPS Ranger, Denali National Park)