FALL ON SNOW, UNABLE TO SELF ARREST, NO BELAY
Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress
A three-person Spanish expedition named “McKinley 99” began their expedition on May 3 from the 7,200-foot basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier. Expedition members included Luis Ibanez (leader), Francisco Mira (33), and Jose Sanchez (39). They established a high camp at the 17,200-foot level on May 13. The next day, the team left in clear but windy conditions in an attempt to reach the summit. They climbed into increasingly windy conditions and were finally forced to retreat due to high winds after reaching a high point of 20,100 feet on the summit ridge about 1800. The three climbers descended roped together with Luis Ibanez leading, Sanchez second, and Mira following third. They did not utilize any running belay. Around 2000 the group reached a short steep icy section at 18,350 feet. While descending this section (known as “the autobahn”), Mira lost his footing and fell. Unable to self arrest Mira ultimately pulled Sanchez and Ibanez off their feet and the group continued down the slope approximately 500 feet distance before coming to a stop slightly above Denali Pass. Ibanez, falling the shortest distance due to his position on the rope team, had no injuries while Mira received facial, wrist, shoulder, and upper leg injuries and Sanchez suffered ankle and rib injuries. Despite these, the men were able to descend the remaining 1,100 feet to their established camp at 17,200 feet by 2200.
On May 14 at 1000, Ibanez contacted an NPS Ranger patrol camping in the same area. Ibanez reported that his group had an accident and “need(s) some help.” After evaluating the injured climbers and contacting the Talkeetna Ranger Station an air evacuation was coordinated. At 1345 the injured climbers were loaded into the NPS LAMA Helicopter and transported to the 7,000-foot basecamp. At 1359 the injured climbers were transferred to an NPS contracted fixed wing aircraft and flown to the Talkeetna airport. They were transferred to Providence Life Guard aircraft and transported to Providence hospital for treatment. Luis Ibanez descended to the 14,200-foot camp with assistance of the NPS patrol and continued to basecamp with other climbers.
Jose Sanchez and Francisco Mira were treated and released from Providence hospital. Sanchez’s injuries included two left fractured ribs and a sprained right ankle. Mira’s injuries included facial lacerations, broken nose, fractured left wrist, bruised left shoulder, and left thigh puncture wounds.
The 18,300-foot level on the West Buttress has a history of falling accidents. The short, icy section of forty-five-degree terrain continues to prove itself a hazard for fatigued climbers descending from a summit attempt. Climbers, especially guides, have frequently set a short fixed line over this area to prevent accidents. A running belay would also avoid falls in this area. Despite its nonthreatening appearance, this area, and others like it, should be crossed with caution as even small injuries such as sprained ankles can have enormous consequences in high mountains. (Source: Kevin Moore, Mountaineering Ranger)