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High Winds and Possible Avalanche, Alaska, Mount McKinley, Harper Glacier

HIGH WINDS AND POSSIBLE AVALANCHE

Alaska, Mount McKinley, Harper Glacier

On the evening of July 3, a 16-member National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition was hit by high wind or possibly debris from an avalanche at approximately 17,200 feet on the Upper Harper Glacier. Although no members of the party were injured in the initial incident, a substantial amount of gear was lost and some students ended up with mild frostbite. The group spent two nights at the 17,200-foot camp before descending to 15,100 feet on July 5. The group was resupplied at 15,100 feet on the Harper glacier by the National Park Service contract Lama helicopter at 1400 on July 7. The entire group descended to Wonder Lake without further incident after receiving an airdrop resupply of equipment and food.

Analysis

With no evidence in the way of debris or actual visualization of an avalanche, it is hard to determine the exact cause of the tents’ collapse. A wind event accompanied with suspended solids, i.e. snow either being transported off the ground or from an upwind event, will have a much higher density and therefore a much larger impact on the objects in the winds path. Even if there are few suspended solids, gusts of wind often blow down snow walls at the 17,200-foot camp just over Denali Pass on the West Buttress route. It is not unusual for groups to use bamboo wands as a sort of “rebar” to strengthen snow block walls or to even build walls that are two- blocks thick in order to prevent walls from blowing over.

The Upper Harper Glacier is much more exposed than the high camp on the West Buttress route, and teams should be aware that during any wind event they will be exposed to the direct force of the wind with little chance of using terrain for shelter. The wind high on Mount McKinley has left many teams fighting to survive and has been the cause of several fatalities. (Source: Gordy Kito, Mountaineering Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: The last accident is actually what is called a “near miss” in that no serious injury or damage occurred. It is included because of it’s educational value regarding the Harper Glacier approach, which is now used by few climbers except for NOLS. This organization has been using this route annually—and without incident—for many years.

There was one other fatality in Alaska. In late July, Marc Springer (30) was part of a four-member team attempting the Devil’s Thumb, a 9007-foot peak about 120 miles southeast of Juneau. Springer fell to his death sometime during the night, according to his partner. Weather was a factor, hut there were no other details.)