American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Unable to Self-Arrest, Fall into Crevasse, Inadequate Protection, Weather, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

On May 26 at 1431, Australian climber John Sides (29), a member of the AUSPAT expedition, fell while descending the Rescue Gully on Denali. Sides slid 300 feet to the brink of a crevasse, then fell down into it and came to rest on a snow bridge.

The AUSPAT expedition had spent three days at High Camp (17,200 feet) waiting out bad weather to make a summit attempt on Denali. On May 26 AUSPAT made an attempt for the summit, but turned back before Denali Pass because the wind speed had increased. The three climbers decided to abandon their climb and descend to 14,200 feet. Although the weather had improved compared to the preceding three days, the higher wind speed now became a factor in their decision making. AUSPAT elected to descend the Rescue Gully because there was a fixed line in there, and the gully was thought to be less exposed than the normal route up on the ridge.

Around noon, AUSPAT began descending the old fixed line in the gully. The line was short, and from its end the climbers decided to continue down unroped to each other. At first, the cramponing was reliable and easy, but midway down, sections where fresh snow had accumulated were slippery.

At 1430, the climbers stopped for a brief rest. Sides’ feet slipped out from beneath him and when he attempted to sit down, he started sliding. Sides attempted to self-arrest and almost succeeded, but he hit some rougher patches of snow, which sent him sliding 300 feet to the brink of a crevasse. Sides then disappeared into the crevasse.

Brandon and Ferris made their way down to the crevasse and looked down into it from the lower lip. They could not see Sides or get a response when they called out his name. (Sides was unconscious and unable to respond.) Brandon and Ferris used their CB radio to call the Ranger Camp to ask for assistance, but did not get a reply. At 1530 Brandon and Ferris heard Sides call out for help from 135 feet down, deep within the crevasse. Ferris rappelled down into the crevasse and sighted Sides. It appeared to Ferris that Sides had free fallen a short span, but—fortunately—slid most of the total distance down a snow ramp and ended up resting on a snow bridge.

NPS personnel and volunteers had witnessed the accident from 14,200 feet and alerted the Incident Command System. Volunteers organized a hasty rescue team and started up to the accident site to assist in crevasse extrication, transport and patient care.

Ferris performed a patient assessment of Sides and assisted him part way up the snow ramp. At 1746 volunteers arrived on the scene and rigged a hauling system to extricate Sides the remainder of the way out of the crevasse. On the surface, Sides was reassessed and stabilized.

The remaining AUSPAT members, Scott Ferris and Scott Brandon, along with NPS volunteers, rescued Sides and transported him to the medical tent at 14,200 feet, where he was treated for a pneumothorax and hypothermia. At 2253 Sides was evacuated by the LAMA helicopter to base camp, where he was then transported by a Pavehawk helicopter and flown directly to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.


Recently there have been several accidents related to climbers sitting down to rest and falling during the process. One was fatal. In these incidents neither climber was roped or anchored. Perhaps Sides’ fall could have been prevented if he had tied into his ice ax and had set it as an anchor before he rested. (Source: Kevin Moore, Mountaineering Ranger)

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