American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Inadequate Protection and Belay, HAPE, Frostbite, Alaska, Mount McKinley, South Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997


Alaska, Mount McKinley, South Buttress

On May 27, Nancy Bluhm (32) of the “Dancing Fools” expedition was airlifted by helicopter from the South Buttress of Mount McKinley after sustaining injuries from a 75 foot roped fall. The expedition flew on May 18 to the Kahiltna Glacier to climb the South Buttress. Expedition members included Tom Masterson (leader), Steve Parry, and Nancy Bluhm. The group reports climbing approximately 1000 feet a day up the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna and on to the section of the South Buttress known as The Ramp. On May 27 the group left camp at 15,800 feet and descended into the col dividing the South Buttress from a steep head wall. The weather was unremarkable with minimal wind at 0 to 5 degrees F. While leading up the head wall Masterson climbed over a bergschrund and continued on with a running belay with Parry second on the rope. When Bluhm reached the bergschrund, a decision was made to stop and descend to the col. At 1430, Bluhm fell on the 40 degree snow slope generating enough force to pull Parry off his stance and slide 75 feet before being arrested by Masterson and a single ice ax anchor.

After the fall Tom lowered Parry to Bluhm. Parry reports that Bluhm was conscious, talking, but unable to move until her 40 pound pack was removed. Once the pack was removed Bluhm was able to walk over to the col while complaining of pain in one of her knees and her back. In the col the body of the tent was set up (the fly was lost in the fall) and Bluhm was placed in a sleeping bag and given fluids. Shortly after being stabilized she began displaying symptoms of shock. At 1630 Masterson and Parry attempted to contact the Talkeetna Ranger station and the Kahiltna base camp via cell phone. They tried repeatedly for over two hours, only getting the message, “Your cell phone is not authorized for this service–.” Finally the group reached the State Troopers after calling 911. At 1927 the State Troopers made contact with the Talkeetna Ranger Station and were able to brief the Talkeetna staff and relay messages for the rest of the operation. The “Dancing Fools” expedition reported that they had one member with an injured back secondary to falling, one member with frostbite and symptoms of pulmonary edema, and that they had lost some equipment including a tent. At 2046 a fixed wing aircraft took off from the Talkeetna airstrip to act as cover ship for the NPS rescue helicopter. At 2056 the helicopter departed with pilot Doug Drury and Ranger Daryl Miller. By 2140, Drury had inspected the potential landing zone and reported winds at 30 knots out of the west with good visibility. As conditions appeared favorable the helicopter landed and took aboard Bluhm without the need for immediate medical attention. Masterson told Ranger Miller that Parry had a little frostbite and beginning signs of pulmonary edema but would try to descend the next day. A tent and C.B. radio were left with Masterson and Parry before flying Bluhm to the Kahiltna base camp. Bluhm was evaluated by NPS paramedic Eric Martin at the Kahiltna base camp and transported to Talkeetna by Jay Hudson where she was met by an ambulance which took her to Valley Hospital in Palmer, Alaska. Bluhm was released from the hospital the next day after being treated for a strained back and skin abrasions. No other injuries were reported.


The length of this fall and the resulting injury may have been avoided by using more snow anchors during the running belay. An even better alternative would have been to use a sliding middle belay which would have enabled Bluhm to be lowered with a belay, Parry to descend a fixed line, and Masterson to descend with the same security of a running belay. Finally, the decision to continue on to the higher and more committing part of the route may not have been reasonable considering that one member was suffering from symptoms of pulmonary edema and minor frostbite. (Source: Billy Shott, Mountaineering Ranger)

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