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Avalanche, Poor Position, Weather, Alaska, Mount Foraker

AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION, WEATHER

Alaska, Mount Foraker

On April 6, the Talkeetna Ranger Station received mountaineering registration forms for Kevin Strawn (27), Travis Strawn (21) and Colby Strawn (15). They intended to climb both the West Rib on Mount McKinley and either the Southeast Ridge or Northeast Ridge on Mount Foraker. Ranger

John Leonard reviewed their registration forms and found their prior experience adequate for their planned routes. The two older brothers had climbed Mount McKinley in 1999 and all three had numerous ascents in Alaska with other ascents including Mount Rainier and the Grand Teton. Leonard signed off on the review, and the leader, Travis Strawn, was sent our NPS mountaineering confirmation letter dated April 16. No other formal contact was made until their arrival in Talkeetna.

On June 8, the three brothers checked into the Talkeetna Ranger Station where Ranger John D. Evans conducted the briefing. As reported by Evans, “They had obviously done a lot of research into the route on the Southeast Ridge of Foraker; however, they were open to alternative routes and ideas if their planned route was unsuitable once they got into the mountains to assess it. Other routes discussed included the Sultana Ridge of Foraker and the West Rib of Denali. Also discussed during the briefing were assessment of snow conditions and different tactics in attempting the routes. Overall my assessment of the team was that they were an experienced team whose members were approaching a potentially serious climb with clear heads and a lot of information.”

Ranger Joe Reichert also visited with the Strawn brothers. Reichert stated, “In my conversation with the Strawn brothers on June 8 prior to their check in with John Evans, we spoke of the possible conditions that they might find on the Southeast Ridge of Mount Foraker. I mentioned that it had been attempted twice early this season, once in March and once in May. Both parties found deep faceted snow and decided to retreat from low on the route. Then we spoke of possible current conditions. I told them that there had been significant new snowfall in late May and early June. I stated that this could stabilize the poor winter snow pack, but that it could also pose high avalanche hazard due to the heavy new snow over the weak layer. We visited some about life endeavors since I had checked them in for a previous Denali expedition. We parted with my usual farewell to climbers: Have fan and climb safely.”

After a weather delay, PJ Hunt of Doug Geeting Aviation flew the three to the West Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on June 11. This glacier is the start for the Southeast Ridge route on Mount Foraker. They took 18 days of food for their possible two climbs with a return date no later than June 27. That evening at 2030, the Strawn brothers called the Kahiltna Basecamp and spoke with the manager Lisa Roderick via CB radio. They asked her if she would contact their wives concerning a bag of climbing equipment that had been forgotten. This equipment would be needed for their climb on the West Rib of Mount McKinley. The message was relayed to the Geeting Aviation office. Apparently the bag could not be located.

On June 12 in the early evening, Hunt flew over the ridge to check on the three and spotted their camp at the 8600-foot level on the South Toe of the Southeast Ridge. One person waved to him at that time. A little later in the evening the brothers again called Kahiltna Basecamp to check on the status of their bag of climbing equipment. Roderick reported that the brothers thought the bag was left with Geeting Aviation. Roderick told them that she would continue to check on its whereabouts.

On May 12 at 2030, the Strawn brothers called into basecamp and spoke with Roderick. Roderick stated that “they sounded concerned about conditions of the route.” In their call they indicated they had been climbing on shale and hinted there had been some rockfall. They reported they were at 10,000 feet and going farther that evening. Roderick read them the weather report that indicated a possible clearing trend. In signing off they said “they would check in at 0830 with me [Roderick] every night” since they were unable to hear weather forecasts from the 14,200-foot camp. After their climb on Mount Foraker, they asked Roderick “to hold the bag [if found] and they would pick it up for their West Rib climb.” Roderick stated “they did not indicate when” this date would be.

No other radio transmissions were heard from the Strawn brothers after the 13th.

On June 17 at 15 3 7, the Lama helicopter departed Talkeetna with Ranger Robinson—who had initiated a search, Helicopter Manager Dave Kreutzer, and Pilot Jim Hood. Weather was clear and calm at 1610 when the Lama reached the 7000-foot level of the South Toe of the Southeast Ridge of Mount Foraker. The brothers’ cache of skis was observed at the base of the ridge at the 6500-foot level. Continuing up the route, tracks between snow and shale could be observed along the ridge crest above 9000 feet. At 10,000 feet the tracks in the snow were followed traversing a 30-degree slope below an ice headwall. Wands with orange flagging were placed on this traverse. The traversing tracks led through avalanche debris to the broken rock buttress that forms the Southeast Ridge proper. Faint tracks were observed above the avalanche debris ascending several hundred feet up a 45-degree ice rib paralleling next to the rock buttress. From near the 10,500- foot level, the tracks appeared to be a single faint set stopping short of a small fracture line that spanned the ice rib. The fracture appeared to be less than six inches in depth.

Robinson directed the Lama to continue the search up the Southeast Ridge reaching 14,500 feet at 1620. The search continued to 16,000 feet with no other evidence so the Lama descended to the last known location at 10,500 feet. Robinson directed the Lama to begin a slow descent down the fall line from this last know spot. Between 10,000 and 9,500 feet, several wands were observed lying on the 45-degree ice and shale slope. A significant amount of surface melt water and a few small rocks were observed cascading through this area. Directly down the fall line at the 8500- foot level at 1635, the Strawn brothers were found deceased and spaced apart on their rope. They were on a 35-degree slope and it appeared they had been lying at this location for several days as the surface snow had melted away except what was under their bodies. Pilot Hood felt he could retrieve the three with the “Grabber,” so the Lama headed for Talkeetna. At 1829, the Lama departed Talkeetna en route to the basecamp with Hood, Kreutzer, Ranger John Evans, and Helicopter Mechanic Ray Touzeau arriving at 1906. At 1920, the Lama extracted the brothers using the Grabber and flew them back to basecamp. At 1928 the three were positively identified by Evans and this was relayed to Talkeetna. Hunt flew the remains of the Strawn brothers back to Talkeetna where they were transported by vehicle to Kehls Mortuary in Palmer.

Analysis

The Southeast Ridge of Mount Foraker has a record of both avalanche fatalities and victims of avalanches that have survived. Unfortunately, the section of route the Strawn brothers encountered was in a high-risk avalanche zone that has proven to be difficult to assess. Most of the lower routes in the Alaska Range were reported to be in poor condition when the three flew in. Waiting for a good settled period of weather before climbing higher was really the only safe option at that time.

In farther observation of the accident site, it appeared the lead climber triggered a very small soft slab avalanche. This person may have been able to regain his footing though the avalanche carried at least one or both of the other brothers down the slope. This momentum made it impossible for the lead climber to hold the fall. Their faint tracks were visible after the avalanche slid because they were kicking in steps that penetrated the older snow layers. The avalanche slid on one of the newer snow layers allowing the tracks to remain. (Source: Roger Robinson, Mountaineering Ranger)