Avalanche, Poor Position and Timing, Inexperience, Alaska, Mount McKinley

Publication Year: 1994.


Alaska, Mount McKinley

On June 8, 1993, Bertha Ramirez (41) departed with the “Choolian” expedition headed for the 8,000 foot camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. The three member team was attempting the West Rib after losing the fourth member to altitude sickness on the West Buttress. They had reorganized at the 7,200 foot base camp. Ramirez was a solo climber who joined the expedition after talking with the members and deciding they would combine forces for safety. On June 9, the expedition moved camp up to the “North East Fork,” on the Kahiltna Glacier. They spent the next four days climbing to the 11,000 foot camp, where they began preparing to ascend the couloir above.

The Choolian expedition started climbing the couloir during the day around 1100 in two person rope teams. Harold Payson and Scott Bilbert led out on 45 degree ice above the bergschrund, putting in several ice screws intermittently. After reaching their high point around 150 feet, they put in several belay anchors. Payson belayed Ramirez and Stephen Morse simultaneously as Bilbert led out again 150 feet higher in the couloir. Around 1500, an avalanche of slush started moving down the couloir above Bilbert, heading in the direction of Ramirez. The force of the avalanche hit Ramirez, knocking her upside down and sweeping her down the couloir until the slack in the dynamic climbing rope tightened up. The weight and force of the avalanche buried Ramirez. She was unable to breathe with her face down in the snow. Morse climbed down to Ramirez, moving snow away from her face and body. Morse took dry clothes out of his pack and put them on Ramirez, who was extremely wet and cold. Both Ramirez and Morse were then lowered down the couloir below the bergschrund.

The other team members climbed down and helped further stabilize her. Ramirez had suffered face lacerations and a shoulder injury. After treating her for shock and hypothermia, they were able to make CB radio contact with Jay Hudson, who made contact with the 14,200 foot Ranger Camp. The Lama was launched from Talkeetna with South District Ranger J. D. Swed aboard flying to the 14,200 foot camp to pick up Mountaineering Ranger Roger Robinson. The Lama then flew to the 11,000 foot camp on the West Rib. Ramirez was flown to Talkeetna, and then transported to Anchorage.


Previous West Rib expeditions had informed the Mountaineering Rangers that conditions in the couloir above the 11,000 foot camp on the West Rib during the day consisted of running torrents of water with continuous rock fall due to the unseasonably warm weather. The Mountaineering Patrol climbed the West Rib during the third week in May and found unsafe conditions during the day and chose to climb the couloir at 0400. The Choolian Expedition decided to climb during a time period when objective hazards were at the highest risk factor. Also, their lack of experience on Denali contributed to their critical decision, attempting the route during the day. They did perform a safe, effective lowering and stabilization of the victim. (Source: Daryl Miller, NPS Ranger, Denali National Park)