American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Ice/Snow, Unable to Self-Arrest, Weather, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

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


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

(What follows is a synopsis of two incidents, one that happened as a result of the second party attempting to rescue the first.)

At 1130 on May 24, Jason Sinnes and Daniel Rowarth (29)—Burrito Brothers climbing team—decided to descend from the 17,000 foot campsite on the West Buttress route of Mount McKinley, where they had spent the previous night. They felt that weather conditions (which had been generally poor for the duration of their trip) were once again deteriorating. Mike Vanderbeek (33) and Tim Hurtado, National Park Service volunteer patrol members, had been at 17K for three days and had spent the two previous nights there. The NPS team was feeling well with “only slight headaches the night before.” They had originally planned to attempt the North Summit of the peak. Since the weather was getting worse again, they had delayed their departure for the NPS camp at 14,000 feet in hopes of being able to assist with the delivery of a helicopter sling load to 17K. After learning that the helicopter mission had been canceled, Vanderbeek and Hurtado began their descent at 1300. The climbers both had “fall summit gear” on and carried 30–40 pound packs. Each wore climbing harnesses, crampons, and overboots. They were each carrying one snow picket and one ice screw. They were not carrying bivouac gear, since they had used the patrol equipment available in the NPS cache at 17K. Winds at that time were steady at 30 mph with gusts to 60–70 mph. They discussed the need to be very careful with foot placement since “a misstep could be fatal.”

Moving steadily, Vanderbeek and Hurtado overtook the Canadian pair some time during the next hour around 16,900 feet. Sinnes and Rowarth considered themselves fortunate to be in “close proximity to the rangers” and were glad that “every few hundred feet the rangers would wait for us.” At a point just above Washburn’s Thumb, the large, well-known granite monolith along this section of the route, Vanderbeek’s crampon came off his boot. (Over his climbing boots he had been wearing Forty Below neoprene overboots and Lowe Footfang crampons.) Sinnes and Rowarth caught up to them again at this point.

After getting his crampon back on, Vanderbeek, accompanied by Hurtado, climbed down below the Thumb, followed shortly thereafter by Sinnes. After down-climbing the steep, fixed section near the Thumb, Rowarth rejoined Sinnes and they regrouped at a flat area of the ridge. According to Sinnes, Rowarth said that “he felt fine, not tired or anything.” They continued down the ridge, staying slightly to the lee side. Sinnes described it as “slightly off the beaten track, steep, and slightly technical.” Sinnes stated that this section “caught him [Rowarth] by surprise and he lost purchase with his feet.” The approximate time of Rowarth’s fall from the ridge was 1400.

Vanderbeek and Hurtado were about 100 feet away from Rowarth when he fell. Hurtado had turned around to “see how Jason and Daniel were doing” and saw Rowarth 50 feet below the ridge crest, catapulting downward. They could not see very far down from their vantage point so Vanderbeek traversed over to the fall line and found Rowarth’s ice ax. Hurtado retrieved the radio from Vanderbeek’s pack, but could not get out from that location. Vanderbeek therefore hiked over the ridge to the south so that he could transmit. Ten to twenty minutes later Vanderbeek returned to Hurtado and Sinnes’ position. Hurtado’s understanding of the situation and the plan at that point was:

Vanderbeek and Hurtado had been given permission from Mountaineering Park Ranger Daryl Miller at 14K to establish contact with Rowarth.

Adrian Nature was going to be dispatched from 14K to 16K to provide a necessary communications link at 16K since they would presumably be out of radio contact once they started down off the south side of the ridge crest.

Upon further contact from Vanderbeek and Hurtado, additional resources would be available from 14K.

Hurtado stated that visibility was 200 feet, winds were 30–35 mph gusting to 40–45 mph and higher. It was not very cold and it did not appear to be unreasonable to be traveling in these weather conditions. At this point they met two climbers, Rowan Laver and Gordon Cox, ascending the ridge to put in a cache at 17K. Cox agreed to assist Sinnes back down to 16K. Hurtado and Vanderbeek consolidated gear for the descent down toward the Peters Glacier. According to Laver, Vanderbeek could “see something down on the glacier.” Vanderbeek and Hurtado took a shovel, tent fly and poles from Sinnes and added this to their other light bivouac equipment. Hurtado and Vanderbeek stopped briefly and had a discussion of how best to proceed with the descent. They talked about using a rope, but felt that rope work would be slower and that they thought they could perform a self-arrest under the present conditions. Hurtado recalled that Vanderbeek seemed more concerned with what he [Hurtado] thought, as he was the less experienced climber. They began to descend the ridge at 1430, winding their way down from Rowarth’s ice ax which they left in place.

Hurtado reported that the terrain that he and Vanderbeek encountered during their descent consisted of “600–800 feet of hard snow” with occasional patches of ice “not more than 10–30 feet long.” They were in voice contact with one another descending 10–15 feet apart, and left and right of the fall line which was marked by occasional patches of blood. Hurtado stated that he and Vanderbeek “maintained continual voice contact, determining each other’s fatigue and comfort level” and that Mike had relayed pointers regarding different descending techniques. Hurtado’s goggles became fogged and his visibility became limited to about three feet up or down. In Hurtado’s words, “I was mostly feeling my way down the terrain.” They now encountered an extensive ice patch and Hurtado, facing in, became much more deliberate with his tool placements. (Each carried a single, 70 cm ice ax.) He described the ice as being in the 40–50 degree range and as being “very brittle and the first swing often dinner-plated.” While descending, Hurtado was not aware that the ice patch was extensive, but rather assumed that it was another occasional patch of ice which would be followed by snow, which had been the pattern to this point. They descended this particular ice patch for 10–15 minutes when Hurtado requested that they head for some rocks that they could see in order to stop and reevaluate. Vanderbeek replied, “Okay.” Hurtado stated that, at that time, he felt “it might be wise to rope and use a running belay.” They continued down toward the rocks and once again made voice contact. Two or three minutes later, at 1345, Hurtado heard “the sound of nylon on ice.” He heard nothing else and shouted for Vanderbeek and received no answer. He removed his goggles, could see much better and realized that his position was precarious. He was on a “400–500 foot sheet of hard, blue water ice that was 45–55 degrees.” As he continued to descend toward the rocks for 10–15 feet, the full gravity of the situation hit him. Hurtado decided that the best course of action was to place his one ice screw and anchor himself to that. This accomplished, he ate, drank and began to chop a ledge on the ice sheet for himself. Hurtado realized that Nature was on his way and that he could wait for a rescue.

At 1426 Adrian Nature left the 14K NPS camp carrying little more than a radio and personal gear (excluding sleeping bag and bivouac equipment). He reached 16K one hour and fifty-six minutes. There he met up with Rowan Laver. They roped up and proceeded up the ridge to where Rowarth had disappeared. Nature spoke of being in “rescue mode” as opposed to “climber mode.” He differentiated between the two by stating that when in “rescue mode,” he was roped up with a partner, and they safeguarded their travel through the use of running belays or fixed anchored belays, depending upon terrain and conditions. Nature’s plan was to check in with 14K at 15-minute intervals. Gordon Cox was enlisted as Nature’s replacement to serve as the vital communication link between 14K and the second rescue team (Nature and Laver).

At 1646 a support party consisting of four additional volunteer patrol members left the 14K NPS camp bound for 16K. The group consisted of Dr. Mark Elstad, Linda Davis, Dean Giampietro (volunteers on Daryl Miller’s patrol), and Dr. Colin Grissom (volunteer on Billy Shott’s patrol with extensive Denali experience, as well as a great deal of other high altitude climbing experience from around the world.)

After they reached the accident site, Nature and Laver attempted to contact Vanderbeek and Hurtado by radio but were unsuccessful. They descended one pitch through the rocks, and screamed for Vanderbeek and Hurtado between wind gusts (60–70 mph). During one relatively calm period they heard someone scream, “Help!” They contacted Miller at 14K at 1730, relayed that they had voice contact, and requested permission to begin down-climbing. Permission was granted to try and contact Vanderbeek and Hurtado. They down- climbed one pitch and requested permission to continue, which was granted. They continued their belayed descent into gradually steepening and progressively more technical terrain. According to Laver it was five full rope lengths down to Hurtado’s position (750–800 feet). They encountered hard, blue ice for the final 200–300 feet. At 1751 Jay Hudson left Talkeetna Airport for the McKinley area to provide an additional radio relay link during the operation and at 1829 an Air Force Cl30 aircraft was requested by the Incident Command Post (ICP) located at the Talkeetna Ranger Station. At 1914 the Nature/ Laver rescue team reached Hurtado’s location and they continued down roped together as a party of three. As they descended through the rock band, they found Vanderbeek’s sun glasses and ice ax. As they neared the bottom, they noticed a blood trail that was one foot wide and that led directly to the body of Daniel Rowarth, located one rope length from the bergschrund on the flat floor of the glacier. Vanderbeek’s pack was found approximately 50 feet up- glacier of Rowarth’s body, while Rowarth’s pack was found about 150 feet down- glacier. Both packs were strap-side down, and the waist, shoulder, and chest buckles and straps were intact and not broken.

Communications with the ground team were pretty good at this point as both Jay Hudson and the Air Force C130 were circling in the area. An attempt to utilize the NPS exclusive-use contract helicopter (SA315 B LAMA) to assist with an aerial search proved fruitless when mountaineering ranger Kevin Moore and pilot Jim Hood decided to turn back from the SE Fork of the Kahiltna in whiteout conditions. Adrian Nature described the weather conditions in terms of some of the worst Alaskan/Denali storms he had experienced. On a 1–10 scale with 10 being the worst, he described the overall condition as an “8.”

After Nature’s team’s official search efforts were fruitless, their main focus shifted to that of self-preservation. They managed to retrieve a tent and a sleeping bag from Rowarth’s pack. Their instructions from Colin Grissom, leader of the support team at 16K, had been to “come out of the hole.” They attempted to do so, but in the swirling winds and whiteout, they found that they had traversed too far to the west down the glacier.

At the 14K camp Daryl Miller had enlisted the help of Dave Langrish and John Elwell (Firestarters Expedition) and at 1836 had led the trio carrying a 600 foot rope and overnight gear to the base of the fixed lines and back to the 14K camp. The group returned at midnight, traveling in “hideous” weather after having hooked up with Gordon Cox and Jason Sinnes on their descent to 14K. Miller had also contacted Ryan Hokanson and Kirby Spangler, a pair of strong climbers who had originally been at the 14K camp to attempt the Cassin

Ridge. Hokanson and Spangler had returned exhausted at 1600 from an aborted attempt on the upper West Rib and declined Miller’s original request for assistance, saying that they needed rest and rehydration. They did offer to assist the following day.

(Editor’s Note: Over the next four days, search efforts continued. Twenty NPS personnel, eleven volunteers, and seven emergency hires participated. Extreme weather marked the first two of these days, then it cleared. Rowarth’s body and the two packs were recovered, but, though many small items belonging to Vanderbeek were found, including his face mask, there were no signs of his body. The search was called off on May 29.

An investigation team was assembled, and the pan of their analysis pertaining to the cause of Vanderbeek’s fall and some of the subsequent actions follows below.) Analysis

The accident was an unwitnessed slip on a 45 degree ice slope. Whether a crampon came off, the wind blew Vanderbeek off the ice, or he slipped from his ice ax or crampons is unknown. The decision to descend the slope unroped in high winds with limited visibility was the major contributing factor. Descending unroped and unprotected by a rope and anchors produced a situation where there was no way to arrest the fall, given the terrain encountered. Mike Vanderbeek was never located and is presumed to have come to rest in either the bergschrund or a crevasse on the Peters Glacier.

The following factors were analyzed for their contribution to the accident:

Communications and Decisions. The decision to descend and look for Rowarth was the first critical decision in the incident. Immediately after Rowarth’s fall, Vanderbeek radioed Daryl Miller at the 14,000 foot camp to report the accident. After a short discussion, Vanderbeek told Miller he could not see the bottom, but if he could “take a look” a short distance lower he could probably spot him. Miller discussed with Vanderbeek the importance of maintaining communications and that Adrian Nature would head up with a radio to act as a human repeater on the ridge. Miller felt that Vanderbeek and Hurtado would take a short look and try to determine what had happened to Rowarth, but would wait for Nature to maintain good communications.

After speaking with Miller, Vanderbeek descended off the ridge to where Hurtado and Sinnes were waiting. It was Hurtado’s understanding that they had permission to descend and begin a search for Rowarth.

The physical communications network between the Talkeetna Ranger Station, the 7,000 foot camp and the 14,000 foot camp consists of hand-held FM radios and cell phones. Generally, communication between the three areas is good. Communications are more difficult in remote spots on the mountain. The park currently has sufficient radios to outfit each team of rangers or volunteers. However, there are not enough to supply each one on the mountain. In addition, CB radios are used by the Base Camp Manager and climbers. The ranger patrols monitor the CB broadcasts.

Communications between the Vanderbeek/Hurtado team and the 14,000 foot camp disappeared as the team descended the side of the ridge toward the

Peters Glacier. Only Vanderbeek had a park radio, which was strapped to his chest. After he fell, Hurtado was unable to communicate with Nature, who was making his way up the ridge. Only by screaming was Hurtado able to make his position known to Nature when he reached the accident site.

Witnessed Fall. Many of those interviewed surmised that the impact of witnessing Daniel Rowarth’s fall created a great sense of urgency to aid the victim. This “rescue fever” is not uncommon in life and death situations, whether among firefighters in burning buildings, or on mountain sides. The heightened sense of urgency produces a desire for speed and a sacrifice of personal safety. The objective facts to not indicate any sense of panic or any initial poor judgment or rash decisions. On the contrary, the opposite was indicated, and Vanderbeek and Hurtado discussed their decisions and proceeded accordingly. Nevertheless, the impact of a witnessed fall cannot be ignored.

Several of those interviewed used the term “rescue mode” when speaking of both the procedures and mind-set they were operating under during the search. This meant, among other things, that they would use all necessary precautions, rope up, set adequate anchors, maintain constant communications, and follow a line of authority in decision making.

The Rope. The decision not to use the climbing rope was the second critical decision in the incident. Vanderbeek and Hurtado had a rope available, stowed in Vanderbeek’s pack. They made a mutual decision not to use the rope. The ground where they started the search was fairly easy, and it looked from their vantage that they could descend safely without it. As the ground steepened, they continued to discuss roping up, asking each other if they still felt comfortable on the steeper terrain. When the snow changed to ice, Hurtado finally asked Vanderbeek to move toward the rocks so that they could rope up.

Weather. The wind was blowing steadily at an estimated 30–40 mph; gusts well above 40 mph were described by witnesses. The temperature was well below freezing. Visibility was variable due to the blowing snow and clouds. At times the Peters Glacier was visible 2,000 feet below, and at other times the climbers could see only a few feet ahead. Hurtado describes how, even wearing goggles, he had extremely limited visibility, and after the goggles began to ice up, he could see only three feet and often felt his way down.

Terrain. The route from 16,000 feet to 17,000 feet on Mount McKinley for the most part follows the ridge line, winding on snow between granite rocks. The routes stays to the north side of the ridge. The slope toward the Peters Glacier is 45–50 degrees and about 2,000 feet high. Depending on the wind and snow cover, ice and rock appear discontinuously along the slope. Most private parties do not use a rope along this section. Guided parties rope their clients up. A section next to “Washburn’s Thumb” has fixed ropes into which most parties clip a carabiner or ascending device for protection. The altitude at Washburn’s Thumb where the initial accident occurred is approximately 16,500 feet.

Equipment. Both Vanderbeek and Hurtado carried one ice screw and one snow picket each, a standard number for the West Buttress route. This would not have been enough protection for a safe descent using the rope 2,000 feet down a steep slope. The leader would have to have placed several pickets or ice screws on a 150 foot lead down the snow slope to have safely anchored the belayer and protected the second person climbing down—just the opposite technique of leading up a similar slope. The lack of protection may have been a factor in the decision not to use the rope; a fall of one of the two would have been fatal to both without a sufficient number or pickets or ice screws.

Each carried one standard 70 cm ice ax. It is not possible to self-belay with one ice ax as it would be with two ice tools, where one tool would always be attached to the ice while placing the other. In using one tool, whenever it is extracted from the ice, the climber is without protection. During the interview, Ryan Hokanson stated that he was “very surprised that Mike had down- climbed the ice with one ax—shocked.”

Each wore crampons. One of Hurtado’s crampons slipped off his boot at the start of the descent, just out of camp. He explained that their overboots made it difficult to have the bail of the crampons grab the boot welt securely. Vanderbeek’s crampon slipped off just before Washburn’s Thumb, and he reattached it. This may have been an immediate cause of his slip on the ice. One crampon was found among the rocks on the fall line. The crampons have two front points, one of which was broken. It was analyzed by a metallurgist at Black Diamond Equipment, who determined that the break occurred as a result of a high impact, most likely during the fall, thus ruling it out as a cause of the fall.

Beyond the first short distance on the moderate angle snow slope, the team did not have adequate equipment to protect their descent.

Experience. Mike Vanderbeek was a very experienced mountaineer with a long resume of difficult climbs on various high altitude peaks, including Mount McKinley. Vanderbeek had significantly more experience than Hurtado, particularly in the Alaska Range; however, Hurtado had climbed on McKinley previously. Hurtado, a third-year medical student, had participated in SAR incidents with the El Paso search and rescue team. Vanderbeek did not list any SAR experience or training in his resume. Their level of experience and expertise would not lead one to expect to find them in a compromising situation. (Source: Daryl Miller, Mountaineering Ranger, and Investigating Team, consisting of Ralph Tingey, Reynold Jackson, Jay Liggett, and Jay Cabler.)

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