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Avalanche, Poor Position—Under Objective Hazards, Alaska, Mount Hunter, West Face

AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION—UNDER ORJECTIVE HAZARDS

Alaska, Mount Hunter, West Face

At 2400 on June 21, Chuck Drake (27) and Joshua Hane (28) departed the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Base Camp. They were attempting to climb a previously unclimbed route on the West Face of Mt. Hunter, with a return down the West Ridge. They were using an alpine style ascent, carrying only four days food and fuel, bivvy sacks and down parkas. Weather conditions were favorable for the first two days, but deteriorated significantly on the third day. The climbers were reported overdue by park rangers on June 27. Aerial search and ground observation efforts were initiated at 1018 on June 27. Weather conditions severely limited flying and search activities until the 30th. A total of 42.8 hours of fixed wing and helicopter overflights were conducted for the next week. Rangers flying in the LAMA helicopter reported sighting a body. Further observation of the area by ground and aerial spotters revealed the area too hazardous to attempt a recovery operation.

On July 7, Drake’s body was swept approximately 1,000 feet to the bottom of the avalanche cone. Spotters watching the accident site concurred that a body recovery was possible if conducted in the early morning.

Analysis

Hane and Drake had previously climbed in the Alaska Range, and both were experienced mountaineers. They had prior knowledge of the poor snow and ice conditions before attempting their climb, including information regarding the two German climbers who had died in an avalanche several weeks earlier.

They climbed up to the 16,200 foot camp on the West Buttress, and were cautioned about the poor conditions on Mt. Hunter by the rangers. Their intended route was extremely dangerous objectively, with abundant rockfall, along with ice and snow avalanches cascading down on a routine basis.

The mechanism seems to have been that both climbers were hit by avalanche debris from above while rappelling the route. There are many unanswered questions, especially the selection of the route itself. Approaching the climb from the bottom, it would have been difficult for them not to notice the hundreds of craters from the rocks, and the huge ice hangers above them.

In 1996, Mt. Hunter had 20 expeditions attempt to reach the summit, with the results being no summits and four fatalities. (Source: Billy Schott, Mountaineering Ranger)