AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Fall on Snow, Exposure, Hypothermia, HACE, Frostbite, Inexperience, Alaska, Mount McKinley



Alaska, Mount McKinley

On April 27,1994, Pauline Brandon (33) and Richard Tyler (28) began their climb of the West Buttress of Mount McKinley. On May 5, solo climber Trigger Twig encountered Brandon and Tyler as they arrived at the 10,300 foot camp. Shortly upon arriving, Tyler approached Twigg and asked, “Can you take us to the summit from 14,000 feet?” Twigg's reply was no. The next day, Twigg advised Brandon to make sure they used protection on the traverse from Denali Pass back down to the 17,200 foot camp. On May 9, the pair arrived at the 14,200 foot camp. They took a rest day, then roped up with Vince Anderson to make a carry to the 17,200 foot camp on May 11. Anderson heard Tyler comment that they were running low on food and that, “We got to get this over with,” (ascending to 17,000 feet). Upon arriving at the base of the fixed lines, the lowest section over the bergschrund was missing. Brandon had a lot of difficulty ascending the ice to the fixed line. She also had to be assisted in getting her ascender on the rope. All three made it to the top of the fixed lines where they placed a cache, then descended back to camp at

feet. As the three were climbing down below the fixed lines, both Brandon and Tyler took separate falls which each arrested. Anderson was concerned with the pair’s experience and felt they should not continue. After her difficult time on the headwall, Brandon and Tyler decided to ascend the rescue gully to reach the 17,200 foot camp. They arranged to have Anderson ferry their cache from 16,200 to 17,200 feet. In the discussion to have their cache carried, Tyler told Anderson that, “I know it's cheating, but it's getting to the top that is the only thing that’s important right now.” On May 12, Brandon and Tyler ascended the rescue gully to 17,200 feet without incident. The next day the pair took a rest day. Anderson returned from the summit where he discussed his climb with Brandon and Tyler. He told them to take their time.

On May 14, Brandon and Tyler departed for the summit at 1030. Temperatures were estimated at - 30° F. They carried enough gear to bivouac. The pair were observed ascending very slowly up Denali Pass from the 17,200 foot camp. Tyler stated that they began to experience symptoms of AMS at 19,500 feet, but continued on. Tyler estimated they reached the summit about 2100, remaining only a few minutes. Weather continued clear, calm and cold with estimated overnight temperatures at - 45° F at

feet. Both were tired on the descent with Tyler feeling that Brandon was more exhausted than himself. Tyler felt he was ataxic and that Brandon gave him occasional directions on difficult sections of the descent. Brandon suggested they spend the night in an igloo at Denali Pass but Tyler insisted they continue on down. Just below the pass at 18,000 feet, around 2400, both Brandon and Tyler fell. There was no indication that the pair used running belays on the descent. They landed at the 17,200 foot level where they remained until spotted at 0730 on May 15. Tyler remembers that Brandon was ahead on the descent but couldn’t remember other details of what happened. Visual inspection indicated they fell from just below the Pass.

Tyler and Brandon lay about 20 feet apart around the 17,200 foot level. Tyler became conscious five to six hours after the fall. He had sustained injury to his ribs and back and couldn’t move from his position. He attempted to arouse Brandon vocally. He was uncertain if she was alive.

Several parties that were camped at 17,200 feet became concerned when Tyler and Brandon did not return in the evening. At 0730, climbers in camp observed Brandon and Tyler on the slope below the pass approximately half a mile away at the same level with the camp. Craig Offless and Charlie Morgan of “The Roof of Americas” party hurried over the pair to provide assistance. At 0745, a CB radio call was made to the 14,200 foot Ranger Station to report the situation. Within 30 minutes, Gordon Smith of the Milford Expedition and solo climber Adrian Popvici arrived to provide additional assistance. Brandon was apparently killed from the fall and exposure. Tyler was stabilized and placed in his sleeping bag and given hot liquids. The NPS LAMA helicopter arrived with ranger Daryl Miller and VIP Doctor Colin Grissom, who had been picked up at the 14,200 foot Ranger Station. They were dropped off near the 17,200 foot camp at 1033 where they climbed over to Tyler and Brandon. Grissom examined Brandon and reported no spontaneous pulse or respirations and her pupils were fixed and dilated. In examining Tyler, Grissom suspected back injuries and felt he should only be moved in a litter. Tyler was placed on oxygen and an IV was started. The extreme cold affected the IV operation even with a separate heat source. Their location precluded a helicopter pickup. A pickup spot 500 feet down the slope was spotted where Tyler was lowered. Tyler was picked up at 1305 where he was transferred to the Alaska Air National Guard helicopter at the 7,200 foot basecamp. Tyler was flown direct to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, arriving around 1410. Brandon was flown off at 1405 by the LAMA to 7,200 feet, where she was transferred to a fixed wing Cessna 206 and flown out to Talkeetna.

Tyler lost eight of his fingers to frostbite while retaining his thumbs. The cause of Brandon s death was listed as hypothermia with an underlying diagnosis of cerebral edema.


Richard Tyler and Pauline Brandon persisted in trying to reach the summit, which appeared to be their most important objective. Many climbers come to Denali each year with fairly limited mountaineering experience and a strong desire to reach the summit. The combination of the two has led to the sad ending of many. The most important objective of all climbers should be the goal to return safely. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)