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Avalanche, Poor Position, Alaska, Mount Hunter

AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION

Alaska, Mount Hunter

On May 13, 1996, Marcus von Zitzewitz and Olaf Hecklinger were killed when an avalanche swept them off their climbing route on Mount Hunter.

On May 5, four Germans, Peter Fresia, Franz Perchtold, Marcus von Zitzewitz, and Olaf Hecklinger, flew into base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. The first objective of the group was the Kennedy-Lowe route on Mt. Hunter. On or around May 5 they abandoned this route because of unsafe snow conditions and objective dangers.

Leaving tents erected at base camp the German group was away from camp on a ski tour for the following five to seven days. Ranger Joe Reichert made his first contact with them at base camp on May 11. On this day the four were busy helping Anne Duquette, camp manager, move her shelter away from a crevasse.

On May 11, one member of the German group contacted Reichert inquiring about a route on the North-West Face of Hunter. At that time Reichert told him that he believed the route had not been climbed and pointed out objective dangers due to seracs and cornices. (Post accident research revealed that the route had been climbed previously, see AAJ 1990, pp. 36–38.) Reichert and the German also talked about the dangerous snow conditions that existed below 12,000 feet throughout the range. The German concurred about snow conditions based on what they had found on the Kennedy-Lowe route, but believed that his proposed line would be mostly on ice and only subject to objective dangers for a minimum of time.

On May 12, Zitzewitz and Hecklinger made a foray to the base of the North-West Face of Hunter to break trail and get a closer look at their route. That evening Reichert spoke with one of the two about their plans and radio frequencies. Their FM radio was not compatible with other local frequencies, so they decided not to carry it. They planned to carry three days of food and fuel, minimal bivouac gear and ice climbing gear. They planned to leave at 0300 on May 13 and hoped to reach the end of the technical difficulties at 13,000 feet in one sustained push, sleep, and then descend the West Ridge.

At 0900 on May 13, Reichert located the duo through a spotting scope; they were moving well, climbing belayed pitches between 9,500 feet and 10,500 feet on the North- west face. At 1100 people in base camp witnessed an avalanche on the Northwest Face of Hunter and reported it to Reichert, who located the climbers approximately 1,000 feet below the last seen spot. He could detect no movement. They were connected by their climbing rope. One was partially buried in a crevasse and the other was hanging.

At 1258 the LAMA helicopter lifted off from the 7,200 foot basecamp with helicopter manager David Kreutzer and Ranger Joe Reichert on board. Once all appropriate checks were made the green light was given to short-haul to the victims. At 1325 Reichert was lowered to the scene. He checked vital signs on both climbers and attached the bodies to the short-haul rope. Back at base camp, Ranger-medic Eric Martin confirmed that Zitzewitz and Hecklinger were deceased. Peter Fresia, a climbing partner, positively identified the bodies which were then transported to Talkeetna by Hudson Air Service.

Analysis

The Northwest Face of Mount Hunter is subject to objective dangers from cornice fall and avalanches. The approach to this face is extremely dangerous and has only been made twice before. It is impossible to say exactly what caused the avalanche that created this accident. There was a crown line approximately 400 feet above their high point that Reichert estimated to be two feet thick and 50 feet long. This could have been released sympathetically as the climbers moved from ice onto the snow slope or it could have been triggered by falling debris from above. There is a cornice overhanging the route at 13,000 feet.

The climbers were belaying each 165 foot pitch and appeared to have an ice ax anchor established at the belay and two ice screws placed for protection when the accident occurred. During the fall the victims passed over a rock band which probably caused the extensive trauma resulting in the fatalities. (Source: Denali National Park—Talkeetna Subdistrict Ranger Station)