FALL ON SNOW, CLIMBING ALONE, EXHAUSTION
Alaska, Mount McKinley, Denali Pass
On June 19, a solo climber from Canada, Michael Heck (61), of the “Whitevale” expedition flew onto the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna glacier to begin a climb of the West Buttress. On June 28, Heck arrived at the 17,200 foot camp on the West Buttress, and the following morning he departed for the summit. At 2200 on the 29th, word was passed from the 14,000 foot camp to Rangers at the 17,200 foot camp that a guided party had encountered Heck as they where descending from the summit. At the time Heck was continuing his ascent above the “Football Field” at 19,500 feet. Heck, in a brief conversation with the guided party, stated he was going to continue onto the summit, and, “If I don’t return by 0600, send the rangers to look for me.” At 0005, on the 30th, Heck was spotted at Denali Pass. Rangers at the 17,200-foot camp began to monitor his decent and observed that he was traveling in normal fashion. At 003 5, NPS Patrol member U.S Navy Chief Brain Gerard observed Heck begin to fall from the traverse just below Denali Pass to a point at which he came to rest about 17,100 feet.
After notifying Talkeetna, Park Ranger John Leonard assembled a hasty- team that consisted of NPS Patrol members Brian Gerard, Matt Hendrickson, and himself, the three then proceed to Heck’s location. At 0230, park rangers reached Heck, and at 0236, Heck was pronounced dead.
After difficult flying conditions for several days, it finally became possible to recover Heck’s body on July 10.
This incident has many of the components of a classic Mount McKinley accident. Heck, who was a solo climber, was descending after a long and tiring summit day. The terrain he fell on is considerably steeper and more exposed than he had just traveled on above Denali Pass. In addition, Heck had said that he “was not in shape for the climb.” In conversations with Heck prior to his climb, rangers tried to convey the seriousness of what he was about to undertake. Due to his lack of recent glacier experience, Rangers tried to convince him that it would be best to climb with at least one other person. However, he was unable to find a partner and so decided to continue as a soloist. Unfortunately, since Heck was traveling unroped, he was unable to use any sort of protection that might have been able to help arrest his fall. Heck was one of five unroped climbers that had to be evacuated from above 17,000 feet in 2002, and was the first fatality on Denali since 1998. (Source: John Leonard, Mountaineering Ranger)