American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Inexperience, Failure to Turn Back — Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

INEXPERIENCE, FAILURE TO TURN BACK

Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

Mike McCarthy (32) faxed his Mount McKinley climbing registration form to the Talkeetna Ranger Station on March 16. His climbing experience consisted of three hikes up Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ranger George Beilstein reviewed the registration form then called McCarthy on March 19. Beilstein was concerned about McCarthy’s lack of experience and emphasized his concerns about solo glacier travel. McCarthy stated that he was aware of the hazards and would try to find a partner. No other contact was made until May 16, when McCarthy checked in for his climb at the Talkeetna Ranger Station. Ranger Daryl Miller gave McCarthy his McKinley briefing and also advised him that as “he had no mountaineering or glacier experience, he was extremely foolish to solo on the glacier without a climbing partner.” He advised McCarthy that “his life was in extreme danger” if he attempted to climb solo and that possibly he would endanger other lives as well.

McCarthy opted to go against Miller’s advice and climb solo up the West Buttress route starting on May 17. McCarthy carried only an 8-foot 2"x2" piece of wood for crevasse protection. A 2"x2" spanning seven feet would support approximately 100 pounds at its midpoint. McCarthy weighed 230 pounds. Combining the weight of his pack and sled, the total weight was closer to 330 pounds. McCarthy was observed carrying the 2 "x2" in his hands at right angles to his direction of travel. Even if it held him, it would have proved ineffectual since it was carried parallel to the crevasses.

A climbing party reported that McCarthy was assisted putting on his tent fly. It appears he couldn’t figure out how to do this. Another climbing party witnessed McCarthy step one leg into a crevasse near the 7,800-foot camp. On the 26th, McCarthy arrived at the 14,200-foot camp with the assistance of Witek Szalankiewicz, another solo climber. Szalankiewicz took pity on McCarthy at 11,000 feet where McCarthy was already running low on fuel and high energy food. McCarthy’s stove was set up with a diesel burning jet which consumes white gas twice as fast as he had planned. On May 28, Szalankiewicz reported to Ranger Roger Robinson that he was concerned about McCarthy’s health and his ability to descend without assistance. He explained to Robinson that McCarthy had no energy possibly due to AMS and a poor diet. He also stated that McCarthy had no climbing experience, which was evident when McCarthy displayed difficulty descending below 14,200 feet to retrieve a cache. He explained that McCarthy had to step sideways to get down a very low-angle slope. He also mentioned that McCarthy had lost one of his mittens near Windy Corner and didn’t have a spare. On May 29, Szalankiewicz convinced McCarthy to go over to the Ranger Station and have his SPO2 checked. His SPO2 (oxygen saturation level) registered in the mid 80s, indicating he was likely acclimating well to the 14,000-foot level. Szalankiewicz indicated that he would continue soloing and leave McCarthy and that he would possibly descend at some point. Several private climbers and members in Robinson’s patrol tried to talk McCarthy into descending, but to no avail.

Many climbers on the mountain shared their concerns with Robinson. On June 1 Kellie Kenny of the “Alaskan Kennymore Krew” party reported to Robinson that she had heard him state, “It is going to be either this [Denali] or Kevorkian—but Kevorkian is in jail.” On June 2 Simon Pageot and Kathleen Michaud of the “Friends on Denali” party reported that McCarthy told them that he had lost his job in Chicago and decided to take all his stuff to Alaska to live. It was Pageot’s opinion that McCarthy was going through a depression.

Robinson was concerned about McCarthy’s mental stability and his complete lack of climbing experience. Robinson felt that McCarthy could crawl higher but didn’t have the expertise to climb back down. Robinson hoped that

McCarthy would join some group going down and descend with them.

On June 3, Robinson and VIP Dr. Bob Desiderio were descending the fixed lines. At 2000 they encountered McCarthy at the base of the lines at 15,500 feet. Robinson informed McCarthy that he “had accomplished a lot to have gotten this far and no one would have expected you to have reached this height. It’s now time to head back down.” He didn’t appear to take Robinson seriously, so Robinson continued: “Over the years I have seen four other solo climbers with similar experience of which three died and the fourth was rescued. I don’t want you to end up getting injured or worse...dead.” Robinson made one final warning: “If you continue up and cause any problems, your climb will be finished and we will bring you down.” After this McCarthy didn’t say much, but he thanked Robinson for the advice. Robinson offered McCarthy a spot on his rope so he could safely descend back to the 14,200-foot camp, but McCarthy declined. Later that evening several climbers reported seeing McCarthy ascending the fixed lines on his hands and knees, not attached to his ascender, but instead using it as a hand hold.

Sean Sullivan, chief guide of an Alpine Ascents International party, provided the following statement: “On 4 June, I spoke with Michael McCarthy at 16,200 feet. He was cooking in the open and said he was very low on energy; he had no desire to go up or down and wasn’t sure what to do. I encouraged him to descend, but he said he felt it would be a waste of his time. I told him that his listlessness was probably a sign of AMS and he thought it wasn’t a big deal. Later I spoke to him again about 200 feet higher as he was on his way up. I asked if he was sure he should go up, and he said he couldn’t think of any reason not to. When I said that I could think of lots of reasons, he said, ‘Yeah, I guess I can too, but oh, well.’ He continued on toward 17,200 feet.”

At 1850 on the 4th, Dr. Dan Hansen of the “Eagle River Denali” party noticed McCarthy at the base of Washburn’s Thumb wearing no gloves and appearing very lethargic. He observed that his fingers had the appearance of “sausage digits”—all swollen with cuts. McCarthy arrived late in the evening of the 4th to the 17,200-foot camp where he set up camp. In the afternoon of the 5th, VIP Joel Geisendorfer was surprised to find McCarthy getting ready to go to the summit. Geisendorfer tried to talk him out of going up, especially so late in the day. Geisendorfer discovered that McCarthy hadn’t planned to take any survival gear, so he encouraged him to take his sleeping bag, stove, climbing harness and snow saw. McCarthy departed at 1430, ascending mostly on his hands and knees straight up next to the rocks. This steep, seldom used route proved very slow going for McCarthy. At 2300 he had climbed 1500 feet to the 18,700-foot level. McCarthy chopped a small ledge on the 45-degree icy slope and went to sleep in his bag. He did not anchor himself in on the open slope. This night proved to be a very calm with no wind and the minimum temperature at -20° F at the 17,200-foot level. Previously the upper mountain had been plagued for weeks with very cold temperatures and strong winds. McCarthy was extremely fortunate for this weather break in his exposed, open bivouac. He didn’t move until 1400 on the 6th, at which time he traversed the slope down toward Denali Pass. From here McCarthy descended from the pass very slowly on the established traverse route back to 17,200 feet. McCarthy was near the bottom of the traverse at 17,500 feet, but still above the rock band where he slipped and began to cartwheel down the slope at 1730. He tumbled approximately 100 feet over the rocks and over a large bergschrund, stopping himself with his crampons. He was very lucky to have stopped and to have sustained only minor bruises. Alaska Air National Guardsman, John Loomis, and solo climber Artur Testov traversed over to McCarthy and assisted him back to the 17,200-foot camp. They informed Robinson of the situation. Robinson informed McCarthy by radio that he “was through with his climb and that we would be assisting him down.” McCarthy accepted Robinson’s declaration.

McCarthy had consumed just a half liter of fluid since leaving the high camp, so the plan was made to get McCarthy hydrated and assist his descent the next day if weather was good. On June 7 at 1130 Geisendorfer, Testov, and Loomis began their descent by belaying McCarthy down the ridge. Loomis noted that McCarthy didn’t know how to properly put on his climbing harness or open a locking carabiner. Since McCarthy had difficulty descending, Testov short roped him while on belay. At 1230 Robinson, VIP DJ Nechrony, and VIP Rod Willard joined the descending party at 17,000 feet and began fixing a 600-foot rope down the ridge. The fixed line was leapfrogged down the ridge while Testov continued with McCarthy on belay. The 16,200-foot fixed lines were reached at 1700. McCarthy was put on a separate belay using the 600-foot rope. They reached the 14,200-foot camp at 1900. Since McCarthy was a tremendous liability to himself and others, Robinson felt he should be escorted all the way down to basecamp. Time was near for Robinson’s patrol to descend so Geisendorfer and Alaska Air National Guardsman Lynn Graybill volunteered to take McCarthy down. At 2000 on the 8th, the three departed, arriving at the 7,200-foot basecamp at 0800 on the 9th. McCarthy was flown off the mountain later that day by Talkeetna Air Taxi.

Analysis

Here is an example of someone who should never have been allowed to climb Mount McKinley. Mike McCarthy had read a book about Reinhold Messner and the book Into Thin Air and felt he wanted to do something like that. With absolutely no climbing experience, he set off to do a near suicide mission. He never figured that others might be at risk if he failed. Every attempt was made by the Park Service and numerous other climbers to get him to turn around even though we felt obligated to provide assistance. This same assistance enabled him to go higher. If he had continued to the upper reaches of the mountain, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have been a fatality. While McCarthy was on the mountain, every day I was asked by climbers, “Why do you let him go up?” and “Why can’t you do something about him?” These climbers had put in years of preparation to climb here and then to witness this debacle unfold! These climbers also knew that they might get stuck with trying to save this guy’s life. It is this ranger’s opinion that future Mike McCarthy’s should be screened and denied permission to climb. This situation was an embarrassment to our education program and our credibility among climbers and the general public. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: It seems as though McCarthy must also have read Into the Wild... Several years ago, a young man wrote to this park and asked, “Is there snow on Mount McKinley all year round and will I have to make camps along the way?” The National Park Service has the same remedy as the U.S. Coast Guard for individuals who put themselves and others at risk. A citation for “Creating a Hazard” may he issued and may include a fine.)

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.