FALL INTO CREVASSE
Alaska, Talkeetna Mountains
At 1700 on April 26, Alpine Ascents guide Brian McCullough (42) was traveling with three clients on an unnamed glacier in the Talkeetna Mountains when he broke through a snow bridge and fell fifty feet into a crevasse. McCullough landed at the bottom of the crevasse on his left side, his sled was caught by the rope and stopped just above him. Within minutes of the fall one of the clients approached the crevasse and determined that McCullough could ascend the rope. The clients then constructed an anchor and McCullough began ascending the rope. As McCullough approached the top, it was determined that a separate line would be necessary, as the original line had cut into the lip of the crevasse in the fall. Another anchor was constructed, and McCullough was able to ascend out of the crevasse on a separate line. After removing the rest of McCullough’s equipment that had been tied to the initial fall rope, the group decided to camp for the night.
On the morning of April 27, the team traveled to a location up glacier at approximately the 8,000-foot elevation. They believed it would be possible for a plane to land there and then stomped out a runway. The weather over the next five days was a combination of heavy rain followed by snow and then high winds. On the morning of May 2, Doug Geeting went to pick up McCullough and the three clients, who were now four days over due, on the Talkeetna Glacier. Not seeing McCullough’s group at the airstrip, Geeting traced the group’s planned route and spotted them. Geeting attempted to land at the group’s location but the snow conditions proved to be too firm to land safely and extract the injured party. He informed the group that they would have to return to the location where they had been dropped off—approximately two day’s travel. The combination of McCullough’s injured ribs, a potentially loaded slope on the route to the drop-off location, and the urging of the three clients, all of whom were Emergency Medical Technicians, persuaded McCullough to request evacuation assistance.
At 0905 on May 5, the National Park Service Talkeetna Ranger Station was contacted by Doug Geeting regarding an injured climber in the Talkeetna Mountains. Since the location was outside park boundaries, rangers referred the caller to the Alaska State Troopers. At 1006, the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) contacted the National Park Service Talkeetna Ranger Station to request assistance. At 1140, the NPS Lama helicopter was dispatched to the scene with NPS Helicopter Manager Dave Kreutzer and Ranger Gordy Kito on board. At 1215, the Lama was on scene and Kito assessed the injuries as possible multiple fractured ribs on the left side. The patient denied any other pain or injuries. At 1230, the Lama departed the scene with Kreutzer, McCullough, and one client for Palmer State Airport. Upon arrival McCullough was taken to the Valley Hospital in a private vehicle and was diagnosed with nine broken ribs (3- 11) and released. At 1335, the Lama retrieved Kito and the remaining two clients and transported them to Palmer.
Crevasses are one of the inherent dangers of glacier travel. McCullough recognized the increased risks of the area in which he was traveling and tied the whole team together using two ropes. The added weight of the other members may have prevented more serious injuries. McCullough’s sled was tied into the rope using a prusik and the handles on the sled duffel were also clipped into the rope multiple times. These measures are standard for glacier travel and most likely prevented the sled from landing on top of McCullough and causing farther injury, as well as the possibility of the sled being lost in the crevasse. The team was able to secure the rope, assess McCullough’s condition, and help him to extricate himself from the crevasse.
One contributing factor to the distance of the fall may have been the fact that the team was traveling on a 9mm dynamic (high-stretch) climbing rope. Some mountaineers are looking into using “low-stretch” (a.k.a. static) ropes for glacier travel to help mitigate the issue of elongation in a crevasse fall.
Repeatedly, the anecdotal evidence points to injuries being caused by the falling climber coming into contact with an object, whether it be the bottom of the crevasse or a ledge, and not from the force created by the rope and harness system arresting the fall. The mountaineering community may need to look into ways to stop crevasse falls in a more reasonable distance, since the dynamic properties surrounding a crevasse fall (i.e. the rope cutting into the lip of the crevasse, partners being dragged) increase the distance traveled and therefore the likelihood that the falling climber will come in contact with something.
However, the testing of low-stretch ropes for glacier travel is incomplete and can not be recommended at this time. Given McCullough’s injuries, evacuating via the ascent route, which required travel through rough terrain with a heavy pack, would have been ill-advised. Given the assessment of the pilot that snow conditions were unfavorable for an evacuation by plane, the safest option was to evacuate using a helicopter. (Source: Gordy Kito, Mountaineering Ranger)