FALL INTO CREVASSE (1) AND FALL ON ICE/WINDSLABBED SNOW, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, DESCENDING UNROPED, FATIGUE
Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Buttress
On May 15, a five member Spanish expedition, “Gambo De Palamos,” left their camp at 17,200 feet to attempt the south summit of Mount McKinley. Shortly after leaving, Rafael Morillas-Cabrerizo turned back due to a headache. At 1400, Enrique Llatser-Fontanet turned back because of cold hands. While descending alone from Denali pass, Llatser-Fontanet fell into a crevasse and managed to extricate himself. He walked himself back to the 17.200-foot camp and presented no serious injuries. The remaining three team members continued unroped to the summit.
About 2030, the three remaining team members reached Denali Pass and continued their descent unroped. Shortly thereafter Francisco Rodriguez-Martin slipped and fell 800 feet. Luis Ropero-Civico and Miguel Angel Romero-Ruiz continued hastily toward the 17,200-foot camp, and within ten minutes of Rodriguez-Martin’s fall, Romero-Ruiz slipped and fell 700 feet. At 2130, team member Morillas-Cabrerizo alerted NPS staff at the 17,200-foot camp that he “needed a rescue.” Although he did not see either fall occur, he could see only one member descending and was concerned for the others. At 2145, the two fallen climbers were spotted unmoving at 17,400 feet, and a land rescue was initiated from the 17,200- foot camp.
The one remaining climber descending, Ropero-Civico, reached the 17,200-foot camp at 2200 with no injuries. Ropero-Civico and Morillas- Cabrerizo assisted NPS staff Mik Shain, VIP Tucker Chenoweth and Air National Guard Pararescueman John Davis with bringing the two fallen climbers back to the 17,200-foot camp. Romero-Ruiz was found unresponsive and showing signs of severe head trauma. He was transported back to
the 17,200-foot camp in a Cascade litter with three attendants. Rodriguez- Martin was found stumbling with no gloves and showing signs of severe chest trauma. Chenoweth and Davis cleared Rodriguez-Martin of a spinal injury, and he was walked back to camp with two attendants. Both patients were brought back to the 17,200-foot camp by 0020, on May 16.
Rodriguez-Martin and Romero-Ruiz were placed and stabilized in a tent and administered low flow oxygen. When hot water bottles were available, they were placed in the patients’ sleeping bags. At 1012, Rodriguez-Mar- tin was loaded onto the NPS Lama helicopter and flown to the 7,200-foot base camp. Romero-Ruiz was placed on a backboard and fitted with a cervical collar and was loaded onto the Lama’s second trip to 17,200 feet at 1048. Both patients were transferred to the Providence LifeGuard helicopter at 1133 and transported to Providence Hospital for treatment.
The remaining team members expressed concern for Llatser-Fontanet’s condition and his ability to descend to the 14,200-foot camp. VIP Dr. Michael Ross reassessed Llatser-Fontanet, finding pain associated with his right knee and left shoulder, but found no reason to grant helicopter assistance. On May 17, NPS Ranger Shain and VIP (Volunteers in Parks Ranger) Chenoweth assisted Llatser-Fontanet’s descent by short-roping him to 16,200 feet. NPS Roger Robinson and VIP’s Lance Taysom and Brian Okonek continued the effort by lowering Llatser-Fontanet down the fixed lines and into the 14,200-foot camp.
Rodriguez-Martin was treated and released from Providence Hospital May 24. His injuries included nine broken ribs, a flail chest, and severe frostbite to both hands. Romero-Ruiz was treated and released on May 29. His injuries included an occipital head fracture, pulmonary contusions, a right pelvic fracture, and a right tibia-fibula fracture.
The descent from Denali pass at 18,200 feet has a long history of climbing incidents. Surface conditions are often icy and present a hazard to fatigued climbers descending from a summit attempt. Guided parties frequently place up to 20 snow pickets and ice screws as anchors for a running belay from 17,500 feet to 18,200 feet. These anchors are often left in situ for others to use for the season but are removed by the end of each season. No guided parties had reached the upper mountain before the Gambo De Palamos expedition made their summit attempt. Surface conditions on May 15 were very icy with a two-inch breakable wind crust. The combination of poor footing, fatigue, and a difficult surface for self-arresting contributed to the falls. Rodriguez-Martin had left his ice ax secured to his pack, making it impossible to attempt a self-arrest.
A running belay would have prevented the falls. The party had set up a running belay on their ascent to 18,200 feet but chose to remove their pickets as they climbed. Again, fatigue and the proximity to their 17,200- foot camp probably led to their descending without protection. Despite its moderate angle, the slope between 17,500 feet and 18,200 feet should be crossed with caution. (Source: Mik Shain, Mountaineering Ranger)