Fall on Snow—Ski Mountaineering, Unable to Self-Arrest
Alaska, Mount McKinley, Orient Express
The “Whiskey Expedition” departed the 14,200-foot camp at noon on May 25 for a summit bid via the upper West Rib of Denali. Their plan was to summit and then accomplish a ski descent via the Orient Express. Two days prior to this they had skied on the lower portion of the Orient (up to 16,000 feet) and had judged the snow conditions to be excellent. The day preceding their climb they approached the medical camp Ranger John Loomis and inquired about the conditions on the upper Orient. A guided expedition had just descended that area and had described the conditions as being very hard snow interspersed with blue ice, not what one would really consider good or safe skiing conditions. Furthermore, blue ice could be seen upon the upper reaches. This information was conveyed to Edward Maginn (3 3), who stated that they hadn’t found those conditions lower down and that they would continue with their plan. The group climbed up through the Orient Express and reached the summit at 2200. They commenced their ski descent, reaching the entry couloir to the Orient at 2300. Maginn was the first one down the route, and after descending the first 1,000 feet without incident, reported losing his balance after skiing over sastrugi. Maginn later stated that he had recollections of tumbling down the slope, but did not remember arriving at the 15,700-foot level. His two partners witnessed the fall and watched until he disappeared from view. They then called the 14,200-foot camp via FRS radio and advised the rangers there of the accident. The rangers went outside and could immediately identify the location of the fallen climber. While patrol members were being alerted, a spotting scope was used to get a closer view of the incident site. Through the spotting scope it was observed that the climber was just below the bergschrund and was not moving. A plan was formulated to dispatch two teams: one a hasty team to evaluate the climber and the second to follow with technical rescue gear and a cascade litter. In addition, two climbing guides, Freddie Wilkinson and Adam Knoff, were made emergency hires to assist with the rescue. Five to seven minutes later, prior to the hasty team’s departure, the climber was observed to exhibit movement, followed by removing his pack and then initiating a descent by sliding on his butt and then finally a staggering walk. While on that descent, he appeared to punch into a hidden crevasse up to his waist.
The hasty team expedited their departure and exited the camp at 2316. At 2328 contact was made with Maginn—who was still walking unsteadily. His face was bloody and he appeared to be very dazed. He had to be told to stop. He did not appear to be aware of the rescue team’s presence. C-spine control was established and an immediate medical exam accomplished. The second team arrived ten minutes later, and based on the mechanism of injury, Maginn was placed on a long spine board and sledded to the medical camp for farther medical treatment. Both teams and the patient arrived at the medical camp at 2347, and his two partners arrived at 2355 and 0014 respectively. They had stopped where Maginn had landed and retrieved his pack and one ski pole. Medical control was notified and a plan formulated to evacuate the patient the following morning with the SA-315B Lama. This evacuation occurred at 1047 on the 26th. Maginn was flown to Alaska Regional Hospital, where he was diagnosed with only a fractured nose and corneal abrasions.
Mr. Maginn was extremely fortunate to have survived this fall, let alone survived it with minimal injuries. It could be argued that the three climbers did not exercise good judgment in skiing down the face, especially after being informed of the current conditions; however, they did climb the same route that they eventually attempted to ski down and were able to conduct an on-site analysis on which to base their decision. The three purportedly had extensive backcountry ski experience and had conducted an intelligent climb and acclimatization schedule prior to the accident.
These three climbers skied the lower half of their route and climbed the upper half and did not attempt it “blind.” That the accident occurred is unfortunate, but the overwhelming reason this climber did not perish is because he and his partners took it upon themselves to wear helmets. Maginn’s helmet was significantly damaged. It is likely he would have perished had he not been wearing it. (Source: John Loomis, Ranger)