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Fall Into Crevasse, Alaska, Mount McKinley, Northwest Fork, Kahiltna Glacier


Alaska, Mount McKinley, Northwest Fork, Kahiltna Glacier

On May 13, The Velvet Underground Expedition, Courtland Shafer (33) and Glenn and Morrison (40) began their climb of Denali’s West Rib. On May 24, Shafer and Morrison were camped at 11,000 feet near the base of the route. Shafer and Morrison had decided to abandon their climb and return to Basecamp. They left their camp at 1300, and descended towards the upper icefall of the Northeast Fork. There were two feet of new snow, and they followed a faint trail that sloped down hill about 15 degrees.

Shafer and Morrison were aware of the crevasse danger and were traveling with the rope tight between them. Shafer was leading and probing with ski poles (baskets on), as they crossed the glacier west to east. Shafer was tied directly into a waist harness and carried some coils of rope, and a 65-pound pack.

Shafer fell through a bridge and down into the crevasse. Shafer struck the wall of the crevasse three times before coming to rest 20 feet deep. Morrison who was ready for something to happen tried to arrest the fall by assuming a face down position. Shafer’s weight pulled Morrison down, approximately 15 feet towards the crevasse opening. Morrison was able to set an anchor, but was unable to establish communication with Shafer. Shafer attached his pack to the rope with an ascender and waited about 10 minutes before ascending the rope towards the surface. Morrison assisted by dropping a loop of rope to Shafer, and rigging a “C” pulley system.

Shafer was injured by striking the wall of the crevasse, and sustained a contused elbow, cracked ribs, and a torn rotator cuff. Shafer climbed out and onto the surface, where both men tried to pull the pack up and over the lip of the crevasse. The pack was attached to the rope by only one of it’s loops and it blew apart just as they were about to land it. The pack fell back down into the crevasse. The pack contained the tent, radio and Shafer’s personal gear.

The crevasse extrication took an hour and a half and left both men tired from the efforts. They did not attempt to retrieve the pack because of their physical condition. They spent the next 18 hours negotiating and judiciously probing their way through the upper icefall. They bivouacked at “Safe Camp” (9,500 feet) and on May 25, they hiked to 7,800 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.

At 7,800 feet, they contacted a French/Belgian expedition who provided food, shelter, and a sleeping bag for them. A Park Service Ranger Patrol also contacted Shafer and Morrison at 7,800 feet and provided radio communication to Basecamp. They then hiked to Basecamp. Their air taxi provided them with a ride to Talkeetna, where Shafer was treated by a doctor.


Shafer and Morrison performed a self-rescue and demonstrated self-sufficiency in the mountains. A few thoughts on what may have helped:

Probe with the baskets off the ski poles, and use the poles as one long probe.

Morrison could have set up a belay while Shafer probed ahead.

When tying in, a chest harness should be included