American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall in River, Packs Too Heavy, Misperception, Alaska, McKinley River

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003


Alaska, McKinley River

My three pals and I (25, 25, 35, 39) were visiting Denali National Park with plans to climb Mount Brooks. The approach features a ford of the McKinley River. The river is a mile wide in all, but quite braided. Most of the braids can be simply splashed through, but some are quite serious.

We left Wonder Lake Campground at midnight on June 18 and hiked to the river. We began the ford at about 3:00 a.m. under the awesome alpen- glow illuminating the entire Wickersham Wall. Obviously the river was cold and the current strong. We were lined up single file facing upstream inching across from our left towards our right. We reached the crux of the crossing a little more than half-way across the river. The person in the front decided it would not go and that we were to inch back the way we came. Soon mayhem was upon us.

Most of the riverbed is rocks, but there are sand and gravel areas. As we started back I stepped onto a gravel area and the riverbed washed out from under me. Quickly I went from a standing position to a kneeling position in the river. I knew immediately that I could not stand back up with mybackpack on, so I jettisoned the pack into the river. Everything got very hectic and I’m not certain of ensuing details. Moments later I was swimming with Marie and her pack. She and I managed to swim and crawl to a sandbar and drag her pack out of the water.

As Marie and I stood up on the sandbar, we saw Todd on his back floating downstream on top of his backpack! I shouted to him to let the pack go but he said he could not. Moments later he was able to turn over and swim and drag himself to a sandbar just downstream from us. Cory was the only one able to stay upright, and he successfully waded to the sandbars. First he checked on Marie and me, then went to aid Todd. Led by Cory, the team was able to get back to shore. We watched as my backpack floated downstream, around a corner, and out of sight.

Todd, Marie and I were cold, shivering uncontrollably with teeth chattering. Todd and I had suffered contusions and harsh abrasions on our swelling knees from fighting and crawling up onto the sandbars. We set up the one tent we had left, gathered our wits, and licked our wounds. The air temperature was quite warm so our hypothermia was of short duration.

Later Cory and I hiked downstream and spotted my backpack, run aground on a gravel shoal. It was, of course, on the other side of the river. We spent hours fording the river to reach the pack. Upon reaching my pack Cory pointed out that we had, indeed, reached the opposite side of the McKinley River. We divided the load and forded, again with adrenaline but without farther incident, back to the south shore and our emergency campsite.

After regrouping, we decided not to try the river again, but instead to backpack around and up the Muldrow Glacier. We were not successful in reaching Mount Brooks, but we did explore the rugged north side of the Alaska Range.


First, our packs were too heavy. We had considered it a point of style that we would carry all our gear from Wonder Lake to McGonnagal Pass rather than hiring a dog sled team to move some gear during the winter. Having made that decision, we then decided to ford the river in one carry. Once I was on my knees in the river, there was no way I could stand up again under the weight of my backpack. (Our packs were too heavy, and when we attempt this again we will halve the weight in our packs and perform two carries.)

Second, we had been surprised to see a group of four climbers coming out of the mountains. They successfully forded the river at the place where we attempted. Thus we did not spend much time looking for our own crossing place, but decided that since they had done it there, we would try it there. (Next time I would take the packs off and explore, possibly for hours, looking for just the spot that our group, not some other group, could cross.)

Third, all of us had our pack belts undone, so it should have been easy to ditch them. However Todd was using trekking poles, as we all were, and when he attempted to ditch his pack he realized that he was wearing the wrist loops. Thus, in the bedlam he could not extract his arm from his backpack shoulder strap.

We had practiced fording rivers before leaving home (Washington state) and had found a method with which we were comfortable. Some will question our method. I think our method was reasonable.

We continued hiking even though Todd and I suffered injuries to our knees. Despite swelling and pain, we enjoyed a big hike into the heart of Denali. Unfortunately this resulted in Todd tearing the cartilage under his kneecap, which, months later, would require surgery.

Despite the accident and following hardships, we agreed that the trip was a success in that we kept it together, covered some beautiful ground, and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company during our visit to Denali National Park. (Source: Christopher Kemp)

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