American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock, Alaska, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

FALLING ROCK

Alaska, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

The Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS)-8 expedition led by Rob Gowler flew to basecamp on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier on June 10. The group progressed steadily up the West Buttress route. Even with several long delays due to weather, the entire team reached the summit on June 26. On the 27th they departed high camp planning to descend to basecamp. They spent a six hours at the 14,200-foot camp and continued their descent at 2110 in three roped teams of four with a guide at the rear of each team.

At 2140, as the first roped team was rounding the toe of Windy Corner, they heard a loud crack and an enormous quantity of rocks came cascading down, striking the first three climbers on the first rope team. Guide Steve Grillo was the fourth person on that roped team and felt a strong tug on the rope as he was on the ground in self-arrest position. Once the rocks stopped falling the first three people on the rope, MarkMorford, Gerb Islei, and Clint West were all seriously injured. Gowler witnessed the event and immediately started calling for help on his cell phone. His initial attempts to call the 14,200-foot and 7,200-foot ranger camps were not answered, so he called the basecamp manager who notified ranger John Evans and then called AMS head quarters in Talkeetna to alert people that he had three serious injuries and needed a helicopter as soon as possible.

By 2205, rescue personnel at 14,200-foot camp, at basecamp and in Talkeetna were all mobilized for the rescue effort. Ranger Joe Reichert was incident commander. By 2311 the Park Service contract rescue helicopter (Lama) and a twin engine Navajo piloted by Erik Dinklewater of Talkeetna Aero were both in the air headed toward Windy Corner.

At 2326, a patient update was transmitted from para-rescue man David Shuman to the 14,200-foot camp. One person, Clint West (47) was deceased, Mark Morford (47) had a femur and wrist fracture and Gerd Islei (56) had several broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a ruptured disc in his lower back.

An air rescue evacuation ensued.

Analysis

While traveling in mountainous terrain has certain inherent risks, the rockfall danger on the West Buttress route has never been a significant concern. This team was in a position that many are in during the course of the climbing season. They were traveling at night, when cooler temperatures and frozen conditions make it safer to travel. They were very unlucky. No other known fatalities have occurred due to rock-fall on Mount McKinley. We all hope that rock-fall in the Windy Corner area does not become more common. (Source: All Denali accounts are edited from reports written by various Denali National Park South District Rangers)

(Editor’s Note: There were a few other incidents on Mount McKinley and one in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park during the climbing season. Two were medical problems—an acute abdomen and a case of HAPE—and one psychological problem, in which a client was threatening to harm himself and others in the group. When the parents of that person were contacted, they did not express any surprise.

There was one plane incident on the Ruth Glacier—a crash on take off. There were no injuries.

On May 4, Jason Harper, c. 28, was dropped off at Windy Ridge for an attempt on Mount Sanford. When the pilot returned to pick him up on May 9, he was nowhere to be found. After 12 days of searching and finding no trace, the presumption is that he perished.

On June 27, the body of Thomas Gary Cole was discovered at a cache site at the 17.200 foot level. An examination of the records indicated that he died June 19, 1969, of pulmonary edema at this camp. On July 1, his body was reburied at the 14.200 foot level.

There are approximately 34 other climbers that have not been recovered from the slopes of Denali. Depending on the location, other climbers may or may not have the misfortune of coming across these remains. Bodies that are found in remote areas should not be disturbed until professionals can get to the scene to determine who the victim was and preserve any evidence around the site.

This was a very unfortunate discovery for all of those involved. We are pleased to have left Mr. Cole’s body in a location of his choosing, and that in the end one of his last requests, to remain on the slopes of Mount McKinley, was granted.)

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