American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Snow, Sprain/Strain, Alaska, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

FALL ON SNOW, SPRAIN/STRAIN

Alaska, Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, West Buttress

The “To Zee Top” expedition started their attempt of the West Buttress on June 9 and proceeded on a normal schedule for the climb. After spending several days at the 17,200-foot high camp in poor weather, the team decided to descend on June 28, giving up on a summit attempt. At approximately 1630, while descending the fixed lines around 15,400 feet on the headwall section of the route, Beckie Covill (52) experienced a short fall. The rope system arrested her fall, but she injured her right knee with a twisting motion. Her team members assisted her for a short distance by removing her pack. They continued down slowly. After farther evaluation, they called on FRS radio to the Park Service camp at 14,200 feet and formally asked for assistance from the rangers. Rangers Kevin Wright and John Loomis at the 14,200-foot camp received the initial radio call around 1700. At 1750, rangers Wright, Mik Shain, and NPS volunteer Ben Habecker started hiking up to the scene with a Cascade litter, making patient contact at 1857. Covill could not walk and required a litter evacuation back to camp. The rangers splinted the knee and rigged the litter for a vertical evacuation.

At 1940 the patient evacuation started, with Wright and Habecker skiing the litter down the trail and Shain belaying. The initial 300 feet of the evacuation was belayed until the slope angle permitted a safe ski evacuation. At the 14,200-foot camp, the patient was evaluated and determined to have a sprained right knee with possible torn ligaments and cartilage. The patient was released for the night, to be reevaluated the next morning. On the morning of June 29, Covill’s knee was still swollen, stiff, and unable to bare weight. The rangers and TZT team members agreed that it would risk farther injury to descend the lower glacier on foot. At 0915 the SA-315B Lama helicopter was requested to evacuate the patient to Talkeetna.

Analysis

One of the inherent dangers of mountaineering is the high possibility of small falls with minor injuries. Every mountaineer will experience these injuries given enough time in the mountains. While these injuries are relatively minor in an urban environment, at 15,000 feet in a place like the Alaska Range they can be quite serious. In this situation we were fortunate to have good weather in which to facilitate a relatively easy evacuation.

As a self-supported expedition with experienced members, the TZT expedition probably had sufficient resources to resolve this situation on their own. However, they elected to ask for assistance from the Park Service to make for a safer and more efficient transport to 14,200-foot camp and back to basecamp. Under the circumstances this was probably a prudent decision. In order to transport Beckie Covill back to 14,200-foot camp using only team resources, it may have required leaving some gear behind to retrieve later. It also may have caused further injury to her knee. Likewise the walk to the basecamp landing strip would have required splitting up all the weight between the healthy team members and still may have risked farther injury to the patient. Traveling the lower glacier in such poor snow conditions and late in the season would have been extra difficult and hazardous with one team member injured. (Source: Edited from a report by Kevin Wright, Ranger)

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