American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow/Ice, Place No Protection, Inadequate Equipment, Alaska, Mt. McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

On April 21, 1995, the “Angove-McKinley Expedition” departed from Talkeetna for the 7,200 foot base camp on Mount McKinley. United States Naval Officers Lt. Michael Angove (31) and Lt. Cmdr. Brian McKinley (37) were the third climbing team to land at the air strip on the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier during the 1995 climbing season. Angove and McKinley arrived at the 14,200 foot camp on May 1. They spent the next several days acclimating and resting before moving their camp up to the 17,200 foot level on May 3. They spent the rest of the day at 17,200 feet resting before attempting the summit the following day.

At 0930 on May 4, Angove and McKinley departed for the summit with another climbing team, “Iced Triple Grande.” The Grande climbing team consisted of Deborah Robertson and Rod Hancock who had been climbing the same timetable with the Angove- McKinley expedition since the 11,000 foot camp. The Iced Triple Grande expedition summited around 1900 with the Angove-McKinley expedition 30 minutes behind them. Hancock and Robertson descended and stopped at the bottom of the summit ridge to talk with Angove. Hancock and Robertson had wanded the entire route from 17,200 feet up to the summit ridge. Angove and McKinley had agreed to pull the wands on their way down. Hancock and Robertson arrived at 17,200 feet at 2330. They observed Angove and McKinley below Denali Pass several hundred feet at 2245. Angove and McKinley appeared okay and were descending without noticeable problems. Robertson described the conditions on Denali Pass as some soft snow mixed with ice at times, with a few sections at 40 to 45 degrees. The weather on summit day was nice with some broken clouds and good visibility. The temperature was estimated at 0° F, with light winds out of the west.

Angove and McKinley were descending roped together with Angove leading and ice axes in hand. Angove stated they didn’t bring any pickets, ice screws or flukes with them on summit day. About 2330 at 17,800 feet, Angove felt the rope tighten and looked over his shoulder to see McKinley falling and attempting to self-arrest with his ice axe. Angove immediately attempted to self-arrest, but was pulled from his position by McKinley’s body weight. McKinley at times was tumbling out of control. Angove and McKinley fell approximately 400 to 500 feet, with Angove landing in the bottom of a 30 to 40 foot crevasse at 17,400 feet. Angove remembers clipping his pack to the end of a slack rope which was tied off to McKinley. He began ascending the crevasse wall. Angove lost one of his crampons during the ascent. After reaching the lip of the crevasse, he followed the rope to McKinley. When Angove saw McKinley, he was not moving and appeared dead. He felt no pulse and there were no noticeable life signs. Angove remembers pulling his pack out of the crevasse and climbing back to 17,200 feet and getting into his tent to sleep. He awoke at 0900 and crawled into the tent of Robertson and Hancock. Angove was suffering from shock and internal chest pain. He explained to them the details of the accident and was given care for the next five days until his rescue. The Talkeetna Ranger Station had communication with Robertson and Hancock getting updates on weather and Angove s condition. The weather patterns at this time on Mount McKinley were unstable, with storms at all elevations preventing any expeditions from moving, including an NPS mountaineering patrol at 11,000 feet.

At 0615 on May 9, the NPS rescue helicopter landed at 17,200 feet after six attempts earlier in high winds. The helicopter with pilot Doug Drury and South District Ranger J. D. Swed landed several hundred feet east of Angove’s location. Swed departed from the helicopter and assisted Angove to the ship.

They immediately departed to the 7,200 foot base camp and transferred Angove to a 210th rescue Pavehawk Helicopter. Angove was flown to the Elmendorf Air Force Base Hospital and diagnosed with HAPE, HACE, and intercostal damage to his muscles and cartilage. Brian McKinleys body was removed by the NPS rescue helicopter on May 18.


Denali Pass has been the location of many mountaineering accidents since the early 1960s. All climbers are cautioned and briefed by mountaineering rangers about the risk factors found when descending Denali Pass. The National Park Service recommends carrying either pickets, ice screws, and/or flukes on Denali Pass in case protection is needed on the descent. Many expeditions carry protection to the 17,200 foot camp, but choose not to bring anchors higher due to extra weight. This is often a fatal mistake. Some expeditions ascend and descend Denali Pass with ski poles without technical difficulties, but have no way of either self-arresting or stopping another person if a fall occurs. Expeditions climbing Mount McKinley for the first time frequently underestimate Denali Pass. The angle of the slope is 40 to 45 degrees at the steepest, but due to the hard ice conditions in early season, it can be extremely difficult to self-arrest. Few expeditions have problems ascending Denali Pass, but many have epics descending it. This is due to extreme Arctic conditions—cold temperatures, blue ice, flat light, and high winds. Many climbers, after attempting to summit, are at their limits both physically and mentally during the descent to the 17,200 foot camp. Reaction time to falls can be severely impaired and delayed from hypoxia due to high altitude. The “Angove- McKinley Expedition” made a decision not to use or take protection descending Denali Pass. It is unclear what caused Brian McKinley to fall or why he failed to self-arrest. In this specific accident, the use of running protection may have prevented the 300 to 400 foot fall. (Source: Daryl Miller, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)

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