American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Serac Fall, Alaska, Mount Johnson, Ruth Gorge

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

SERAC FALL

Alaska, Mount Johnson, Ruth Gorge

On May 15, Seth Shaw (38) and Tim Wagner (34) checked into the Talkeetna Ranger Station and filled out a backcountry permit to climb Mount Johnson. They were flown into the Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park and Preserve by Talkeetna Air Taxi.

On May 16, Shaw and Wagner started their climb of Mount Johnson, climbing a ice gully located on the center of the buttress. They finished the climb on May 21 and returned to their base camp at the base of Mount Dickey. The weather remained inclement for the next six days, forcing them to remain in their tent.

On May 25 at 1930, Shaw and Wagner skied to the base of Mount Johnson and climbed to the base of a large serac icefall located on the east side of a couloir. The icefall had an ice-cave-type entrance at the bottom and with an over-hanging serac some 50 feet higher than the entrance.

At 2000, Wagner walked into the ice cave—about 20 feet wide and 50 feet long—and placed his ice picks into the wall. Shaw was outside the cave about 50 feet down slope from Wagner and had laid his tools down to use his camera. As Shaw was taking a picture, the serac above them came crashing down on top of them both, burying Shaw. Wagner was pinned down by an ice boulder and spent about 30 minutes digging out to free himself. Wagner shouted for Shaw and looked at the huge pile of ice boulders that were stacked up an estimated 20-30 feet on top of where he had last seen Shaw standing.

At 2030, after hastily searching for Shaw and aware that climbers were camped at the base of Mount Dickey, Wagner skied up the glacier to get help. He contacted Kelly Cordes, Scott Decapio, Jeff Hollenbaugh, and Bruce Miller. After talking with the climbers Wagner decided he should stay at their camp. Decapio skied to the mountain house attempting to radio out for help.

At 2330, Miller, Hollenbaugh, and Cordes skied seven miles down to the accident site to attempt to locate Shaw. They belayed each other to the debris site several times, but were unable to find anything but Shaw’s two ice tools. They surmised that the wind blast from the ice falling onto the snow caused enough force to blow the ice tools down glacier. They found Shaw’s skis that were marking the site and also a pack he had laid down-slope from where the debris pile was. They shouted numerous times calling Seth’s name, but they never heard any responses.

At 0120, Miller, Hollenbaugh, and Cordes skied back to their campsite at the base of Mount Dickey. The trio later was able to radio to an air taxi and report the accident.

At 1110, a K2 Air Taxi reported the accident to the National Park Service at Talkeetna Ranger Station. Talkeetna Air Taxi was near the scene and landed at the base of Mount Dickey and picked up Wagner and flew him to Talkeetna, where he was treated for a leg fracture at the Talkeetna Sunshine Clinic. At 1302, the NPS Lama rescue helicopter flew to the accident site with NPS Mountaineering Rangers Roger Robinson & Scott Metcalfe aboard and Jim Hood as the pilot. At 1325 , the Lama hovered over the accident site while the Rangers videoed the site and looked for any sign of life. It was determined that the accident site was too dangerous to ground search and that there was a zero chance of survival.

Analysis

This was an unfortunate accident that demonstrated the unforgiving nature of icefalls. The tragic incident also confirms again that even the most experienced climbers are vulnerable to accidents. Shaw worked as an avalanche forecaster, had years of climbing experience in Alaska, and was extremely knowledgeable regarding ice and snow. This accident site was and is an active zone of seracs constantly calving. There was new debris present when Shaw and Wagner arrived at the icefall. In fact, since the accident the site has had numerous collapses of ice burying the site deeper with debris piles.

It was Wagner’s first trip to Alaska and he commented that he depended on Shaw for judgment calls regarding hazards on glaciers including crevasses and icefalls. It will never be known or understood why Shaw decided to go into this precarious area that was even too dangerous to conduct a ground search safely.

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