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Fall on Snow, Unbelayed, Exhaustion, Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Rib-Notch Camp


Alaska, Mount McKinley, West Rib—Notch Camp

At 1430, on June 18, Russ Watts (33)—from Italy, fell 150 feet from the Notch Camp on the West Rib. Watts reported that he was investigating the snow conditions on the West Side of camp when he slipped on icy conditions and tumbled toward the 14,000-foot basin between the West Buttress and the West Rib of Mount McKinley. Watts team members, Kimi Johnson and Peter Hodum, descended to the slopes where he lay. He did not lose consciousness but was not able to walk. Hodum and Johnson, trained in wilderness medicine, assessed his injuries and called Ranger Scott “Scooter” Metcalfe by citizen’s band radio. Metcalfe, based at the 14,200- foot ranger camp, recruited rescuers among the National Park Service volunteers and mountain guides who were at the 14,200-foot camp. Johnson and Hodum reported that Watts had right rib, left shoulder, right hip, and back pain. The two teammates assembled a makeshift litter with skis, foam pads, sleeping bags, and rope and began to lower him toward the 14,200- foot camp. In three rope teams, the rescuers ascended toward the West Rib, carrying ropes, pickets, a SKED, medical equipment, and other rescue gear.

At 1745, the NPS rescuers reached Watts position at approximately 16,200 feet. The rescuers set snow anchors and constructed a lowering system consisting of a main line and a belay line. Dr. Chad Page performed a preliminary assessment of Watts while in the litter on a snow platform. He was alert and oriented. He had significant right rib tenderness, leftscapula tenderness, and left pelvis and femur tenderness. He was able to move and feel his hands and toes. He did not have neck or head pain. He was given 30 mg of Toradol in his right shoulder muscle and three Percoset tablets. He was given the tablets because the morphine vials that were carried to the site were empty. The plungers which hold the morphine had apparently fallen out, allowing the morphine to exit the back of the vial. Watts had moderate to severe pain in his left pelvis when he was moved. Watts and his improvised litter were placed in a SKED. The improvised litter appeared to be sturdy but did not completely support his head and neck. He had relief of his pain with the medicines. He did not complain of pain or cold during most of the lowering. The SKED eventually reached a lower angle slope at approximately 14,500 feet from where he was carried to the medical tent at the NPS camp at 14,200 feet. Watts was transferred to a padded cot with full spinal immobilization. He was carefully undressed. Both Dr. Chad Page and Chief Brian Gerard of the US Navy performed a complete physical examination.

On the morning of June 22, Watts was flown to Alaska Regional Emergency Department. He was later x-rayed and diagnosed with 21 fractures to include one femur, one shoulder, ten transverse processes of the spine, and nine ribs.


Russ Watts failed to have a belay while he checked snow conditions out the door of his tent at the 16,200-foot Notch Camp on the West Rib. He was exhausted from a previous ascent to the summit the day before. Watts attempted to make a scuff test of a small cornice to check snow conditions, but the snow released causing him to fall approximately 150 feet. (Source: Scott Metcalfe, Mountaineering Ranger)