American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Inadequate Protection , Climbing Unroped, Inexperience, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

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


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress.

On May 19, “Seven Summits Croatia” party of two flew into the Kahiltna Glacier with plans to summit Mt. McKinley via the Messner Couloir. They spent one day at 8000 feet, the third day at 11,000 feet, and the fourth at 14,000 feet. At this point they were forced to rest due to the rapid ascent and minor altitude sickness.

On the sixth day they reached 16,400 feet and rested a day to acclimatize better. Dolovski suffered minor headaches at this point. On the eighth day the two climbed to the 17,200-foot camp on the West Buttress to acclimate, then returned to 14,200 the following day and prepared to begin climbing early the next morning. A small high pressure system moved in and the weather was clear and cold. The two climbers left at 0200 on the tenth day to attempt the summit via the Messner Couloir. They reached the summit around 1330. At this point Ungar reports that the weather began to deteriorate. Both climbers agreed to descend via Denali Pass on the West Buttress route. Ungar reports that Dolovski was feeling strong so he took the lead. Both climbers agreed to descend unroped in order to facilitate a rapid descent and because they lacked the necessary equipment to protect the route.

At the Football Field the climbers found themselves in a whiteout and decided to follow a wanded route down the mountain. They followed the wands onto a steep slope between 40 and 60 degrees and decided that they must be off route, but could not determine where they were. At this time Ungar took the lead with Dolovski following only two meters behind. Ungar estimates that he reached a bench in the slope at 19,000 feet, and decided to reanalyze the descent. It was at this time that Ungar reports Dolovski’s sudden fall past him and quickly out of sight. Ungar continued his descent, searching for his partner, hoping he had successfully self-arrested. Ungar eventually came to a fork on the Orient Express and decided to search the left couloir. When he found no sign, he climbed back up to the col and began descending the right gully towards the 16,200 foot camp.

Ungar was sighted descending the Orient Express at 2132. His elevation was estimated at 17,500 feet. The high altitude rescue helicopter was put on alert, awaiting a clearing in the weather at 2200 and launched at 2245 in order to assist with the rescue of the solo climber. A Colorado party made the initial contact with Ungar at 2255 and determined him to be okay but very tired. At 2333 Dr. Colin Grissom’s team from the 14,200-foot camp reached Ungar with the initial two rescue teams at 15,000 feet, and determined that the rescue helicopter was unnecessary and that his team would escort Ungar back to 14,200.


Both climbers had very little high altitude climbing experience prior to coming to the Alaska Range and had no prior experience on McKinley. Therefore, the route they chose was ambitious and maybe more technical than they expected. The small window of good weather they received the day prior to their summit day proved to be only temporary and they had no plan of how they would descend should the weather deteriorate, as it did, up high. They brought insufficient snow/ice anchors for their climb and descent and as a result did not use their rope at all. It is possible that had they been roped without anchors, both climbers would have died on the descent. But considering the long and difficult ascent, and high altitude, it would appear that the placement of anchors while descending would have been a safe way to go, especially upon discovering they were off route and on steep snow and ice. (Source: Billy Shott, Mountaineering Ranger)

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