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Fall on Snow, Exposure, Probably AMS, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

FALL ON SNOW, EXPOSURE, PROBABLY AMS

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

On June 9, a Spanish climber fell 4,000 feet to his death on Mount McKinley while two of his fellow countrymen clung to a frosty perch just below the summit until they were rescued with a litter after 2300.

The death came near the end of a day of efforts to rescue the three Spaniards, including one attempt in which a Park Service helicopter nearly crashed while trying to bring the climbers down from the 19,200 foot level.

Earlier in the day, National Park Service officials had tried to reach the three men with a high-altitude helicopter, but nearly crashed after a climbing rope hit its tail rotor. The helicopter had to fly down to the base camp to await a mechanical inspection and was later grounded. With the Park Service’s only chopper out of commission, U.S. Army Chinook helicopters from Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks were requested to fly to Talkeetna and stand by for a possible rescue.

Meanwhile, besides the three dropped off by helicopter, a pair of other volunteers had headed up from the 14,200 foot camp on Friday morning to see if they could climb over the summit of the mountain and descend the West Rib to reach the climbers, identified as Xavier Delgado Vives (34), Clinewt Lupon (34), and Albert Puig (26).

“We’re moving the chess pieces around all over the mountain,” Park spokesman Quinley said earlier in the evening.

The Spaniards were overdue as of Thursday from their attempt via the difficult West Rib, but Park Service rangers had not been particularly worried. The trio got a late start, and thus some delay was expected.

Rangers asked another group of climbers beginning an ascent of the rip to watch for the three. When spotted on Thursday, the Spanish climbers had stopped moving. The Park Service tried to talk to them by radio, but communications were difficult because none of them spoke much English.

“This morning, we talked to them through an interpreter,” Quinley said. “We’re still not sure what the deal is. They’re not moving. They were talking about frostbite, but it’s sounding more like AMS.”

The Park Service’s Aereospoattle Llama helicopter on Friday was able to drop the group water, an extra radio and other supplies before near-disaster struck it. After the delivery, Ranger J. D. Swed was supposed to drop a climbing rope from the helicopter.

“They got the bag,” Quinley said, “but the rope caught on one of the (helicopters skids), and they couldn’t shake it loose.” The helicopter tried to descend to 16,200 feet to land and cut the rope loose, but a gust of wind tossed the line over the tail boom.

“As J. D. said, several years went by in several seconds there,” Quinley said. “Life on the edge, a little over the edge on that one.”

It was worse for rangers on the ground. Daryl Miller at the 14,200 foot camp saw the helicopter disappear behind a ridge and thought it had gone down. So did Ranger Kevin Moore, who was flying support with pilot Jay Hudson.

“Luckily, the rotor cut the rope clean,” Miller said. (Source: From an article in the Anchorage Daily News, by Craig Medred, David Huylen, and S. J. Komarnitsky)

Analysis

The two surviving climbers were lifted off and flown eventually to the hospital in Anchorage, where they were treated for exposure and frostbite. The exact outcome is not known. I was in Talkeetna at the time, and was told that they had been warned by other climbers to descend earlier, because it was known that the weather was going to get worse. They allegedly told these other climbers, “We will get a rescue. We have paid.” The latter refers to the $150 fee that each climber on Mount McKinley is now required to pay as part of defraying the educational program for climbers, as well as the ranger camp at 14,200 feet. Foreign climbers who are used to rescue insurance are understandably interpreting the fee as being just for that purpose. (Source: J. Williamson)